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 they “grab 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 had “no 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?