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It's Not Easy Being A Slave (And Neither Is Playing One)

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by Sergio
March 8, 2013 11:59 PM
37 Comments
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Perhaps the most surprising thing about this story is that the people who run Colonial Williamsburg are surprised. I mean why should anyone be?

What I’m referring to is a story that appeared today in The Washington Post that Colonial Williamsburg, the "living history" museum and town in Virginia which replicates 18th Century colonial  Williamsburg, VA, complete with historical buildings and reenactors portraying people of the period, is having trouble finding black actors to play slaves.

Of the regular 44 actors who play roles at Williamsburg, 11 are black and several roles, especially those for young black male slaves, go begging. Stephen Seals, who started out as a slave reenactor and who now supervises all the Williamsburg actors, admits it's hard but understands why it’s so tough to find black actors: “There’s always a real strain to playing an enslaved character”.

What’s more, black actors, who do play such roles, have to be taught to be as realistic as possible in their behavior, to be submissive and non-threatening, such as never looking any white actors in the eyes when spoken to, or bowing whenever a white person walks by or enters a room.

Seals knows that’s a tough order and it’s a rather psychological problematic for a black actor to act that way. In order to do so, they have to be, according to him: “taught to be detached from your character. Doing these roles really tests that hypothesis. It’s not for everyone.”

One Williamsburg official said that: “You interview people, and they’ll say: ‘I just can’t do it. I can’t put on that costume,’ It comes with a lot of baggage. If you haven’t unpacked that baggage before you put the costume on, you’re going to have problems.”

And then another problem black actors have is the reaction they get from visitors who get too involved with what they’re seeing. Sometimes theygrab prop guns or started to shout about fighting back. Some have been known to bump or block white actor-interpreters who are haranguing or otherwise mistreating enslaved black characters”.

Yet others have quite a different reaction. One black slave reenactor recalls a white child once asked him if he was a slave, and he said yes, to which the kid replied, asking him to get him a soda. (WOW, they sure start teaching them young don’t they???)

Seals recalls a white woman once asking him “Why are black people still so angry?” To which he had a ready reply: "Post traumatic slave syndrome".

But black actors who work at Williamsburg feel that it’s an honor and their duty to play those roles, if only to show people the history of slavery. As one black reenactor said: “Some people haven’t thought about what happened to our people. It's sometimes hard to remember that these enslaved people were people. They had hopes. They were proud. (They) were the true founding mothers and fathers of this country. It was built on their backs.

Not surprisingly the black percentage of visitors who come to Williamsburg every year is very low around 2% to 3% annually. Therefore in an attempt to bring in a younger crowd, Williamsburg has been experimenting with up and coming Hollywood black talent such as actress Erica Hubbard (Lincoln Heights, Let’s Stay Together) to basically do “guest spots” as a slave at Williamsburg, for a couple of days.

When asked if she has second thoughts about doing it, Hubbard replied that she hadno hesitation" and that she did it because "it’s our history. It happened. It’s a time period that needs to be talked about. I see it differently. I embrace it.”

Interestingly though, the Williamsburg Museum, which been around since the 1930’s, didn’t start using black actors until 1979, and in 1999, a firestorm  was created when the museum recreated a slave auction which resulted in protests by the NAACP.

However, Hubbard has no second thoughts, though, make no mistake, it’s not easy. “Sometimes it’s disheartening to see where we came from. But you’re happy that we made great strides to get away from that mentality…All that work our ancestors did is not in vain.”

What about you? Say you're a struggling actor working for a role - could you do what Hubbard did?

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37 Comments

  • Donella | March 12, 2013 4:01 PMReply

    Like others, I cannot wait to see the Nat Turner/Denmark Vesey/Seminole re-enactment.

  • Karina | March 11, 2013 7:14 AMReply

    Why do the actors who play the slave characters have to be Black?

  • Karina | March 12, 2013 4:19 AM

    Believe me, I know... I am just scoring my latest short doc, which is about blackface at the Cologne carnival in Germany (where I live). I just think if they are actors, then they don't have to have the skin colour we unfortunately associate with slaves to pull it off. I'd love to see some Blacks playing the roles of slave owners, just as much as I'd like to see Whites playing slaves.

  • Miko | March 11, 2013 3:40 PM

    Because blackface isn't pretty

  • Geneva Girl | March 10, 2013 11:04 AMReply

    I went to Colonial Williamsburg as a kid and enjoyed it because I was a history nut. My father, at the time, was a history teacher and he filled in the gaps of what was presented.

    I have, in fact, planned to take my daughter here this summer. Because she goes to school overseas, she has not learned about American history beyond what I've taught her. Living history museums such as this make history come alive. Such experiences start conversations about history. I read years ago that when black tourists come to Williamsburg, they head straight for the slave quarters. That's what we plan to do.

    I don't think that black visits are low at this museum because of the depiction of slaves. I find that at most historic sites and museums we've visited we are often the only black family or one of a very few. Sometimes the only time we see other black kids is when they are on a camp or church outing. That's a sad reality.

  • Hmmm... | March 11, 2013 10:07 AM

    "If there were no depiction of the slave history of Williamsburg, you all would be up in arms" ~ Geneva Girl

    First, thanks for the convo... but I don't believe that's a true assessment. Fact is, there were NO complaints prior to the addition of the slave narrative. Why would there be? Fact is, there are several museums and historical institutions that focus on America's history that do not include slave reenactment scenes, and that's fine and understandable.

    The problem is not the lack of inclusion, it's the way such inclusion is presented to the public. If it has the appearance of being offense, self-serving or a water-down version of history, I believe all Americans should have a problem with that.

    That said, since you admitted to visiting during a period when NO black reenactors were present (that's not an experience you can pass forward), why would you champion an experience and advise others to travel to a location that you know absolutely nothing about?

    I once lived in a neighborhood that was flourishing with black pride, no drug problems and a low crime rate. I have fond memories of my parents guiding me through those years. The picnics in the park two block from our home and our leisurely stroll to grandma's house are entellibly etched in my mind. Great memories to say the least. But that neighborhood is not the same anymore. There's danger, physical and mental pain lurking in that environment. I can talk to my sons and daughters about those days and my experiences, but I don't have to take them there, nor would I.

    Having said THAT, reiterating... I am taken aback by those who champion this place, but are UNABLE! (or unwilling) to explain the exact nature of the rewards a black American can find from crossing that threshold, let alone speak about the downsides.

  • Geneva Girl | March 11, 2013 8:26 AM

    Hmm: When I went in the 70s there were no black reenactors. The slave experience wasn't mentioned at all, that I remember. What I do remember is my parents teaching me what was missing.

    If there were no depiction of the slave history of Williamsburg, you all would be up in arms. Yet, you all aren't happy that there is a depiction of such. I take my child to museums to start conversations and to teach her history myself.

  • Hmmm... | March 10, 2013 12:20 PM

    " Living history museums such as this make history come alive. Such experiences start conversations about history"

    Okay, what -- exactly -- did you learn (about the history of slavery in America) through your experience at Colonial Williamsburg? More importantly, since Williamburg's focus is centered on the 18th Century and the actors (interpreters)were all cleaned up and speaking in their best King James dialect, do you believe mixed message run rampant? In other words, isn't this nothing more than a water-down, whitewashed version of American history? A version that appeases and soothes the souls of white folks?

    I am taken aback by those who champion this place, but are unable (or unwilling)to explain the exact nature of the rewards a black American can find from crossing that threshold... and the downsides.

  • CareyCarey | March 9, 2013 10:18 PMReply

    Although I came to Sergio's party (y'all know that's what he do... throws a party and feeds us firewater) with a smile on my face and humor on my voice, but these comments really have me thinking. I mean, I tried to bring a little conviviality to the party but you guys have shined a light on the more serious nature of this reenactment thang. So I'm wondering what GABRIEL TOLLIVER (below) is on? He said--> "it's a place I think all African-Americans and white Americans should visit." Well hell, maybe he know something that we don't? He did say the historical interpreters really break it down, so maybe we're missing the point?

    Well, since I know a little bit of something about a religious text, Christian legend says that Gabriel is the one spoken of in the Book of Revelation who blows the final trumpet announcing Judgment Day.

    So, when GABRIEL TOLLIVER blows his horn... "I did an episode on Colonial Williamsburg for my web series MONDO BLACK", it must be time for the Final Judgment, so we all better head his beck and call, right? I-don't-know-nothin' but maybe Mr. Tolliver will come back and tell us what's really going on?

  • ALM | March 9, 2013 10:14 PMReply

    The real question is why anyone feels the need to have this type of daily reenactment in 2013.....who wants a daily reminder of this period of torture, rape, mind washing and mutilation? I have been to the Holocaust museum in D.C., and they DO NOT have people reenacting what happened during that time period.

  • CreoleYaya | March 9, 2013 7:06 PMReply

    I would not pay money for this.

  • sandra | March 9, 2013 6:25 PMReply

    If you're going to show slavery then you need to show the WHOLE experience. How many tickets do you think you would sell then? They know better than to try this ish with Jews. "Hey, step right up little Johnny! Come get your temporary unit tattoo then off you go with the other little boys to the gas shower re-enactment segment of the tour. Don't forget to pick up your Yiddish children's camp cartoons and song DVD as a souvenir when you leave!"

  • Bondgirl | March 9, 2013 6:57 PM

    Sandra, I agree with your comment, but the Jewish part of your argument is a tad inaccurate. There are Nazi Party/Holocaust reeneactments in the countries where it took place, and *sigh* when Jews complain, they use black ppl's pain as a comparison in the same manner.

  • BluTopaz | March 9, 2013 5:46 PMReply

    I would have brought that little demon some nice cold refreshing Kizzy soda, and handed in my resignation directly afterwards.

    It's always interesting to me how differently Black people think we should remember this nightmare legacy. I would like to visit one of the grand southern plantation houses because I'm interested in history and architecture, but there are many Blacks who wouldn't set foot near one and I understand that.

    I'm just baffled how any Black person could re-enact even the most mundane aspects of slavery for the entertainment of whitefolks (cuz let's not kid ourselves, it's not education for them, they know exactly what their ancestors did)-that photo above has a young girl in one of the scenes. What? And as an actor, how do you even put this on a resume? "slave re-enactment specialist"--I could never be this broke nor hungry. Let me be dressed as a slave and have one of "them" ask me "why are Blacks still so angry". I wouldn't last half a day in that gig.

  • Barbara | March 9, 2013 9:06 PM

    You are better than I am. I wouldn't last more than two seconds!! I'm no longer angry, but my "soul" still feels the pain of my Slave ancestors. I can't tolerate the thought of Whites who feel they can make movies about it without the actual descendants input.

  • Black | March 9, 2013 4:18 PMReply

    Why dont' they re-enact a bonafide African rebellion. Let's try that and see how many "white visitors" continue to visit a "museum" that shows white plantation owners and their families slaughtered on a daily basis.

  • Barbara | March 9, 2013 9:08 PM

    Nat Turner??

  • Nuff Said | March 9, 2013 4:46 PM

    THAT'S A GOOD IDEA!

  • Gabriel Tolliver | March 9, 2013 4:04 PMReply

    Sergio,
    A timely piece and a place I think all African-Americans and white Americans should visit. The historical interpreters really break down the genesis of 18th century slavery that set the groundwork for the 19th century antebellum South. You might be interested to know I did an episode on Colonial Williamsburg for my web series MONDO BLACK produced by the National Black Programming Consortium. You can check it here: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LUOAIProkIQ

  • CareyCarey | March 10, 2013 9:49 AM

    NBPC has a legacy of proudly supporting producers and digital media storytellers who represent the global Black experience. It's a our goal to provide funding and distribution within our affiliated public media networks including representation on our dedicated online/web series channel BlackPublicMedia.org.

    Okay Gabriel, I get that. The organization is committed to doing great things. In fact, over the last 20 years, NBPC has invested more than $10 million dollars in iconic documentary content for public media outlets. However, it's safe to say, sometimes we drop the ball.

    I visited your youtube link and I just don't get it. I mean, you said Colonial Williamsburg is a place all African-Americans and white Americans should visit. Well, after viewing your "promotional" interviews, I am left with the begging question... what it is really all about?

    Maan, I was holding my breath thinking any minute now, a malfunctioning Yul Brynner was going to pop out and start shooting up the place. I joke, but I'm serious. Your video had the feel of advertisement for a Westworld type futuristic amusement park. And that department store (Jethro Tull) background music was killing me. But you did save the best for the last.

    When you asked the the program development manager if he had a contingency plan in case of a slave revolt, the brother appeared to choke on his dentures and shit on his-self. Now I got that... that wasn't scripted, it was a Yul Brynner-ish malfunction.

    And the ending said it all.

    [Woody Guthrie playing in the background] Narrator: There's no Step-n-Fetchits, coons or bucks here at Colonial Williamsburg, just some passion people dedicated to the memory of our collective family... to upgrade this place called America. [and btw] As black unemployment continues to soar above 11 %, there's a job here... for those ready, willing and able to share our story. [Fade to black]

    WOW! I feel like I've just been bamboozled, lead astray and lied to.

  • getthesenets | March 9, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    How is this any different than the Black actors who play non speaking roles in Roots, 12 Years a Slave, Quilombo or any other project about slavery?

  • Miko | March 11, 2013 3:56 PM

    From a pseudo-neuroscientific point of view, ongoing immersion in a virtual reality setting such as this could seriously mess up one's brain.

  • Black | March 9, 2013 5:11 PM

    I have not been there, but I suspect in Williamsburg the actors that play Africans (that are forced into chattel slavery) are not: whipped, castrated, raped, hung, branded, shot, starved, caged, and/or otherwise killed and maimed. Let's start there...I'll let others expand if you remain confused.

  • STHN | March 9, 2013 3:44 PM

    The place should be shut down, plain and simple! Of course it won't be. I keep seeing the ridiculous commercials. Young caucasians firing rifles and walking with the American flag. Woooooooooo fun times! What a fun place to take my black family. Where is the concentration camp park in Berlin, New Hampshire? Oh, low blow eh? Think about it. The holocaust aint funny but us good old town folks blacks be a-ok to put them in some amusements parks?

    So the holocaust is obviously more real than slavery was in our grand old country. And for the some that say yes Mr Tarantino's film made money, it sure did! The highest grossing western! What a feat!
    Make a holocaust film with spaghetti western music and Matisyahu and see how far you get. Here is what a screenwriting coach wrote about QT:

    "Part of the reason Django became less enjoyable to me as it went on is that the fundamental sadism of the writer-director became overwhelming. Simply put, Tarantino seems to take extreme pleasure in finding creative new ways to maim, torture and kill people.

    As his career has progressed, Tarantino has found the need to justify this sadism. So for him the question naturally arises: how do I create a story world where this extreme level of violence is not only acceptable, it’s necessary? Answer: create stories where the heroes fight two of the worst crimes against humanity in history, the Nazis and slavery. It’s win-win-win: Tarantino gets free reign to torture and kill to his heart’s content, the audience gets to feel good about taking revenge against all those evil people, and critics get to applaud Tarantino for his masterful take on the “big themes.”

    Note to Quentin: please, please stop acting in your own movies. The moment you show up in this movie is the moment it officially ends. "

    In any case, is the job for Crispus Attucks still available....my bad....my bad....guess I'll have to wait till the Colonial Boston is built.

  • bear | March 9, 2013 3:42 PM

    Because a movie is a one-off project, and your next project might be something more respectable or less-heavy. A role such as this is a year-round identity. It is basically your day-job.

  • getthesenets | March 9, 2013 12:49 PM

    looking at youtube vids of a visit to Williamsburg and there's a guy delivering a monlogue and singing about the implications of enslaved men joining the redcoats(after british offered to free Africans who joined them)

    might have to see more but this reminds me of a handful of plays that I've seen about this period in and place in history.....way off off off Broadway plays, so in many cases the audience was right on top of the actors

  • Sweeta | March 9, 2013 12:28 PM

    (Raises hand) The proximity/access of the audience is one.

  • FilmGuy | March 9, 2013 10:38 AMReply

    I've been to Colonial Williamsburg and looking in the eyes of the black actors, I couldn't help but wonder "Why the f*uk are y'all doing THIS job?" I mean, really. Who cares if it's in the name of reenactment, that whole place is school for white supremacist ideas.

    Think of the reverse. A theme park about the Haitian Revolution where every day, black actors slaughter whites in the name of freedom. Think of what that would do to a kid's mind as opposed to taking them to Disney world. Ri-dam-diculous....

  • Barbara | March 9, 2013 9:26 PM

    @ CC "pimp slap the shit out of all of them." Big LOL!!!

  • BluTopaz | March 9, 2013 5:36 PM

    ITA with all of Black's comments, esp, the clarification re: the rape and dehumanization of men and women as opposed to merely "getting brown sugar", and the mindset of these actors who have no idea how they are allowing themselves to be exploited.

  • Black | March 9, 2013 4:58 PM

    Word...and we don't have to go to Haiti to tell the story of revolutionaries...we can look into the history of Williamsburg, VA and find countless numbers of Africans who resisted, escaped, and killed white folk to gain freedom. LET'S RENACT THAT and see if the "fans" of this "museum" still support this RI-DAM-DICULOS journey into history. I bet they won't have any problems getting Black actors if they make that narrative shift, but they will sure have problems getting white folk to continue their patronage because white people do not want to confront their true historical legacy in this country.

    ...and I agree with CC below, however, the scenes would not be about "getting some brown sugar" they would have to witness the rape and torture of both black men and black women who were not only forced to be the instrument for white men to live out their sexual fantasies, but were often forced into having incestuous sex in order to breed children/property for the white men, women, and their families who legally claimed ownership over them. (I wonder if the Black actors would object to that re-enactment? Sadly, I don't have confidence the answer is yes)

    Racism/White privilege madness/Ri-dam-diculous shenanigans aside, I am mostly sadden for the Black people (actors) who are so uneducated - historically, politically, socially, culturally, and economically - about themselves and their accurate social location in the world that they have perceived these jobs and that institution as legitimate and worthy of their time and their talents, unfortunately, at the expense of their dignity. When they wake up I hope they are not too hard on themselves because they have a painful awakening ahead of them. Racial Identity Development is real - Google it.

  • CC | March 9, 2013 1:24 PM

    HELLO!... Ri-dam-diculous.... and a great place to take this discussion. If their intent is to reenact that period, I believe it's only fair that the whole story should be told.

    If they reenact the submissive nature of some enslaved black folks, let's talk about behind the green door and the whispers of the boom-boom room. I think it would be an eye-opening experience to witness Miss Betty Crocker and Mandingo gettin' it on. OOOOHH YEAH! And in the other room, I think it's apropos to show Mister Charlie and the prettiest black woman on this earth, making love the old fashion way. Then, thinking of that little white boy who asked for a coke, I wonder if he'd be inspired to ask for a little brown sugar instead of a sugary soda ?

    Now I know that's a part of American history that many run from, but somebody gotta talk about the evolution of how the cream got in our coffee.

    Although I jest (somewhat) I do wonder what people hope to obtain from visiting places like Colonial Williamsburg? From my perspective as a black man, if I went there, I'd rush over to one of those submissive and non-threatening black actors -- including their new master (or should I say 2013 house nigga) Stephen Seals -- and pimp slap the shit out of all of them. And then I'd throw a few dollars at their feet as I would a woman on a stripper's pole. Then, with a scowl on my face I'd tell them to "GET A REAL FREAKIN' JOB AND STOP SELLING YOUR GODDAMN SOUL"

  • JEFTCG | March 9, 2013 4:26 AMReply

    Although I'm reasonably certain it won't happen anytime soon, I pray for that day we no longer have to pick at this scab in order to acknowledge our history.

  • Sweeta | March 9, 2013 12:25 PM

    Yass!

  • Kari Dee | March 9, 2013 1:09 AMReply

    I feel so bad for Erica Hubbard. I heard things were bad at BET, but I didn't know it was like THAT. I'm gonna pray for her career.

  • Stop | March 9, 2013 2:20 AM

    Erica Hubbard is a TERRIBLE actress. Horrible for real. I don't feel bad for her at all career-wise, but if she says she was happy to participate, I'll take her at her word. She's not talented enough to lie.

  • Mrs. davis | March 9, 2013 1:29 AM

    What can we do for her? Should we do a KickStarter for Erica Hubbard? She was so nice on the Lincoln Heights. This makes me sad, to see her struggling.

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