I was giddy with excitement when a woman dressed in a bonnet and apron said, “Good day to you!” as I walked by, and when a stern man in Yorktown demonstrated the loading and firing of a musket with all the gravitas of an 18th-century infantryman. I could hardly blink during the portrayal of Colonial-era citizens put on by actor-interpreters, the cast members who make Colonial Williamsburg a living history museum.
Most of all, I was inspired to find that in the Historic Triangle (Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown) history isn’t dead — it is evolving as these places face painful stories about the past and make an effort to unveil the nation builders that didn’t make it into (because they didn’t write) the history books.
This year marks 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, Va. Just three weeks after that, the governor, his council and 22 elected representatives convened the first General Assembly, laying the foundation for a democratic, independent United States. Visiting the Historic Triangle now makes one understand why it’s impossible to pry those two narratives apart.
Williamsburg is also commemorating 40 years of African-American interpretation — it wasn’t until 1979 that Colonial Williamsburg started including stories of black residents. An exhibition at the Raleigh Tavern, “Revealing the Priceless,” includes a video, shown to the public for the first time, of the controversy that unfolded in 1994 when Colonial Williamsburg reenacted a slave auction, drawing criticism from groups like the N.A.A.C.P. for what some regarded as trivializing.
I saw one African-American interpretation. “My Story; My Voice,” is the heart-wrenching tale of Betty, a woman who was enslaved by a wealthy family in Williamsburg. Put together from the fragments of documents that remain, the one-woman show charts Betty’s childhood, including the moment her mother is sold to another family and, later, Betty’s transfer to the family plantation. Records show, the actor-interpeter Margarette Joyner told the audience, that by the time she was 50, Betty was listed as “worthless.”
Stephen Seals is the program development manager for the 40th anniversary commemoration, and also an actor who interprets the life of James Lafayette, a slave who worked as a spy under the Marquis de Lafayette during the Revolutionary War.