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.
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.