Resolved, an American Experiment: Interactive Theater at Colonial Williamsburg

The Courtroom in the Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg where Resolved, an American Experiment is performed. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

I attended a new program at the Capitol in Colonial Williamsburg recently called Resolved. I have long missed the days when the reconstructed Capitol was filled with burgesses debating the issues of the day while visitors entered the chamber to witness these debates. When I heard the focus of this new program was centered on the 5th Virginia Convention I was excited; I thought, Huzzah! CW had returned to the programming of old.

I became concerned, however, when the actor introducing the program kept referring to it as a rousing show. Then they selected a number of children to be representatives such as Patrick Henry … Oh brother, I thought. This isn’t going to be historical, it’s pure entertainment. And sure enough, when the cast began the program, they sounded more like a Dr. Seuss story than anything historical. The gong – yes, gong, and the silly plays on words, like Dun-more … boooooo … “He should have Dun More,” were at times painful.

But then something magical happened. Members of the audience, both kids and adults, helped teach everyone the basics of the American Revolution by reading cue cards with important events on them like the Sugar Act and Stamp Act. Actors theatrically explained what each act did and we all received some excellent historical context. Then the big moment: a young lad who had volunteered to participate read a portion of Patrick Henry’s 1765 Stamp Resolves speech and he absolutely nailed it. I was floored with the passion and poise he showed, and suddenly I was having fun. Other members of the audience added to my enjoyment with their own rousing scenes and by the time we worked back to Patrick Henry’s Liberty or Death speech, I was fired up and banging my cane on the floor in approval. Others in the audience were equally inspired and I remember thinking, wow, the House of Burgesses might have actually looked like this back then (crowded to capacity with dozens of members reacting to speeches and motions, albeit dressed a little differently).

The amount of important information about the American Revolution that this program teaches is very impressive. It kind of reminds me of The Story of a Patriotmovie, an excellent overview of the Revolution that CW shows at the Visitors Center, except the Resolved program is probably more effective because it is interactive. It is also more balanced because the actors remind the audience of the historical flaws that existed, namely, the exclusion of slaves, servants, women, Indians, etc. in the process. While I remain very uncomfortable applying today’s standards of right and wrong to those who lived 250 years ago, I can’t fault CW for pointing out the fact that it was free, white, protestant men of property that were in charge back then.

By the time the program in the House chamber concluded, we’d covered twelve years’ worth of Revolutionary events in an engaging and entertaining manner and reached a unanimous vote for independence, just like the 5th Virginia Convention. We were then ushered upstairs to the Joint Committee room where we were reminded in a very powerful way that when Virginia’s government was formed in 1776 with the drafting of the commonwealth’s first constitution, not everyone was represented at the table – literally. The way CW highlighted this point was creative and poignant and their message that the history of the Revolution is All of OUR history, even if some where initially excluded from the table, was powerful.

We ended up downstairs in the courtroom where we were reminded that what these men did in 1776 was considered treason. The actors also reminded everyone of the important historical documents and amendments to our constitution that have occurred over 240 years. The message I received was that we, America, is still a work in progress and that we’ve come a long, long, way.

Update

The next time I saw the program it was with my class of 11th grade History students from Gloucester High School (seventy-five strong). I was both excited and anxious to see their reaction to the program. The cast was different (both are talented and excellent) and the script and performance largely the same. I was thrilled when one of my students who had volunteered to be Patrick Henry nailed his part. A few other students gave exceptional performances and at the end I was even more excited about independence than the first time. When I debriefed my students after the trip they largely agreed with my views and said the program was their favorite part of the field trip.

They, and I, applaud the program’s educational value, it really is an impressively extensive look at the American Revolution and a wonderful addition to the programming at CW. I was thrilled when many of my kids commented on how powerful the scene in the upstairs committee room was. They said it was very well acted and very moving. Well done CW!

We all agree, however, that the “gags” and plays on words and rhymes and such, the lines that go for laughs, should be jettisoned from the script. Several students thought they might be appropriate for young visitors, but the vast majority of my teenage students, as well as myself, found the jokes unnecessary and distracting to the program. The American Revolution is a very weighty topic and I can see little value in making any of it funny or cute (despite the success of the musical 1776). My students also recommended that the program lose the gong that is used to mark scene transitions. The transitions were obvious to everyone when the actors put on different articles of clothing, so my students said the gong was unnecessary and strange to hear in that setting. That was my initial reaction to the gong, too, but the second time through I didn’t mind it so much in part because it’s purpose (to mark a change in time) was explained to us beforehand.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other observation that many of my male students made. It was one that also bothered me the first time I saw the program and I suspect it is a point of contention for many visitors. Many of my male students (who happen to be predominately white) expressed annoyance at the repeated reminders that free, white, protestant, property owning men were the sole participants in the political decisions of the American Revolution. They said the emphasis on this fact, repeated several times in the performance, appeared to be an attempt to shame these men, or their descendants. Most said it was fine to remind people about who held political power and who was excluded in the American Revolution, but doing so as many times as the actors did seemed to convey the message that our political leaders (Jefferson, Henry, Washington, etc.) were bad people.

We shouldn’t broadly judge or condemn people in the past by our standards today, said most of my students, but look at their actions and decisions in the context of their lives in their times. Needless to say I was pretty proud of my students for thinking this way.

I do not wish to seem dismissive of the issue of inclusion and exclusion or appear too critical of the Resolvedprogram; it really is an excellent program that teaches a ton of important history and also inspires with fine performances. The color blind and gender blind casting is a great idea and there are a lot, a whole lot, of powerful moments (upstairs in the Committee room perhaps being the most powerful).

So my heartfelt thanks goes to Colonial Williamsburg for the new programming. And here’s to even more new programs that help the country and the world remember the importance of America’s Revolutionary past.

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6 Comments

  • Great introduction to a new program I will have to see.

    P.S. “Huzza” is not spelled with an “H” and never was until approximately 1835.

    • In current language, both “huzzah” and “huzza” are accepted spellings for this vocalized exclamation. In the eighteenth century, English-language spelling was not standardized; both “huzzah” and “huzza” appear in print in the eighteenth century, although the latter is predominant; this can be confirmed by a google books search.

  • One of the CW employees who helped design this program attended the recent Conference of the American Revolution in Williamsburg in March. She asked a number of other conference attendees, including myself, to attend the program on the Sunday afternoon after the conference had concluded in order to provide her with some feedback. I can’t speak for everyone in the group who attended the performance with me, but I believe each of our experiences and thoughts were similar to yours. It is a very educational, albeit somewhat unorthodox, program. The feedback I provided was that I had learned more about what went on in the Colonial Capitol during that program than I had in 30 years of visits to CW. My one criticism is that I do share the concerns voiced by your students that the program harps too much on the “white Protestant males only” theme.

  • There was a young married couple from Kansas that squeezed in with my class and I spoke to them while me moved from the Burgess chamber to the Joint Committee room upstairs. It seemed their takeaway from the repetitive mention of “free white protestant men with property” was that CW was saying that this fact was something shameful. As we walked upstairs they said something along the lines of, “They [CW] needs to remember that this country was built on Judeo-Christian values”. They clearly didn’t like that part of the script and I suspect a whole lot of other visitors will be annoyed by the repetitive line as well. My fear, in this politically charged age, is that visitors who react this way won’t appreciate the extensive education the program provides, they will fixate on what they see as a politically correct message.
    I personally wasn’t as bothered by the line since it is factually correct, although I think presented as it is, without proper context and in a particular tone of disapproval, CW should expect a lot more white protestant males in the audience to be annoyed. (My main critique continues to be the silly shtick parts of the script.) There really is no useful purpose for such theatrical devices in the House of Burgesses, recreated or not. All this being said, I hope they keep the program so I can bring more students to it next year.

  • Mike, your review of the new program at CW has encouraged me to make it a point to see it as soon as possible! Interactivity and student/audience engagement are excellent educational tools. I suppose, as you say, the trick is getting it right with the proper mixture of historic accuracy and at the same time making it participant-centered enough to keep the attention of a vast range of ages in the audience.
    As to the over-use of the “white/protestant/male” interjections, I kind of look at it a different way; if it makes us uncomfortable, then it probably is being mention about the right amount. Just as we insist on more doses of historic accuracy, we cant shrink away from ALL of it because some bits make us uncomfortable. However, having not seen it yet I cant make any judgments either way until I do.
    You have really gotten me excited about seeing the new program and hope to do so in the very near future. Thanks so much for the review; Huzza(h??) good sir!!

  • Mike, your review is absolutely spot on! I attended a performance this afternoon and was educated, entertained, and moved at some points. I also agree with you and your students’ opinion that the constant reminder about a lack of inclusion in the independence process was a bit annoying. By today’s standards, we all know it was wrong.

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