Winter Immersion Weekend Report
Disclaimer: Due to the nature of this blog entry, I do warn that there will be some uncomfortable and delicate content included in this post pertaining to slavery in the 18th century.
This past weekend, I spent all of Saturday and Sunday in early the 1770's fully immersed in the lifestyle of what it was like to live and work in the mid 18th century Maryland. I was expecting the weather to be frigid like the polar storm we had not too long ago, but it seemed like the weather was more favorable (in fact, it felt like an early spring). The participants of the big event were close friends and new acquaintances and the visitors who came really enjoyed talking with everyone and learning second-hand what we all experienced first hand such as sleeping outside in wooden cabins with nothing but the fireplace and bodies of people you either just met or have known for years to keep you warm. We experienced eating authentic 18th century foods, learning how to write, how to do needlework, to how to worship, and for my experience- there was the search for freedom and experiencing race relations in the 18th century.
|Courtesy of Wilson Freeman
Imagine a cold and muddy January morning in 1770. Right along the Chesapeake river's edge right below the mouth of Annapolis is A small port town, teaming with people who live and work. I portrayed Beck. A 22 year old enslaved woman to the widowed Sarah Ferguson; an upper class woman who was a seamstress and stay maker. She also was prominent in London Town during that time. Anyway, after we got our Starbucks (best part of waking up), we made the trip down to London Town's museum and gardens in Edgewater, Maryland. Once we checked in, and was given our briefing by the coordinators, one of the servants appeared and greeted "Mrs. Ferguson" while taking her cloak and hat. I was totally ignored. In fact, I was snubbed. I found this a bit off putting at first until I was pulled aside by the head servant. "I'm sorry in advance..." he said. Then I understood, that we were officially in 1st person.
To best explain or describe how I best portrayed my character would be to put your trust in 30+ people that you are working closely with for a good 6 months, all at the same time! And then ... be submissive to 30+ people and visitors. A total of 181 people total. For those who know me, I am a very confident person who is an extrovert, and all around sweet lady. I will look you in the eye and talk to you for hours (or listen). I could not do that this time for this impression. I could not look my peers in the eyes. I had to look at the ground; I could not speak to them on a first name basis but instead address them as "Miss'us", "Sir" or "Massa". I had to be sheepish and at the same time be close by not only to "Mrs. Ferguson" but to also to spectators. I opened and held doors for my peers as well as with visitors. I won't lie, it made many of my peers uncomfortable. If I had any time alone, it was only for a moment and if it was permitted. When I spoke with one of the members of the public who was visiting, he asked me questions about my role in the house and what it was like to be a slave. I answered the best I could by going over what my duties were as a ladies maid... "Well, what do you do with your free time?". I quickly answered "What's that?" This was to give him an idea that there was no such thing as free time to a servant or to a slave. You were busy doing other things when you weren't waiting on the master or mistress of the house. It made him very uncomfortable that I had to break character just for a moment and explain to him in modern day language.
By 11 am, "Mrs. Ferguson" and I went to the visitor's center to participate in a rummage sale that was being held by one of the interpreters, Mrs. Riley and her husband. I managed to buy 10 pence (really $10) worth of this beautiful light weight wool cloth that I can only describe as tomato bisque colored. After we finished up, we headed out back to the Brown House/Tavern. We broke character again to talk more about comfort zones. What were we most comfortable with, etc. When we reached the Brown house, we went over my scene to where I could start gathering up the stolen goods in the tavern with the help of the members of the public, and make a run for it. She'd call for me and then start a search. The operation went down a little too well. I had conspired with a few people some my peers, and some visitors and I even had some of the members of the public engage in the scenario by helping me gather a few of the stolen things. By the time I made my 1st escape, I ran towards the Tailor's shop, begging and pleading for sanctuary and a hiding spot. Denied sanctuary, I was shown the side door I could slip out of and escape. Then I hear people calling my name. I run as fast as my legs can take me. With the mud being very thick under my feet, it made maneuvering very hard which caused me to become out of breath. I decided to use the Tenement house as a safe house and do the same thing. I begged and pleaded for sanctuary to which they allowed me to run up stairs and hide. To my surprise, I was greeted by 2 members of the public who were shocked to see me almost in a hyperventing state and anxious. So I wouldn't be heard below, I quickly removed my shoes and walked on the wooden floor in my stockings.
"I've run away! I need your help!" I said to the couple. "Where do I go?" I asked.
"North." Was the answer I got.
"That's great! That's a wonderful Idea. But where North?"
"How about Philly?" Was the answer I got.
"Philadelphia is a great place! Slavery is illegal there...I think."
While this couple was helpful with my escape, there were was another visitor who wasn't as helpful...
"Well, good luck with that."
I had originally planned to engage with the public with a bit of Q&A on a more calm setting, but this was perfect. Tensions were high and it made the public think quickly on their feet. After the first scene was over, and everyone had breaked for lunch, I reset by replacing all of the things that were taken from the Brown House/Tavern and doing it all over again with the second group. However, that's when the setting changed and got better. SO much better.
By 2 pm, the Anglican Minister and his wife arrived. As we all set up for the second half of the programming there was a gunshot. A robbery! Two men, a convict servant from the tavern and another man had attempted to rob a woman in the tenement house by way of a ladder and were chased throughout the gardens. So while everyone was occupied with that, it was the perfect time for me to set up by putting my market wallet in the basement of the tavern and then make my exit. A Plus, it was a crowded area so that was perfect for spectators. Only problem was I'd forgotten the 2 important items (the money on the hearth, and the shoes on the back door). I figured to myself. Forget it, it's not that important. You got those already and we have another program at 3. As the angry mob brought the two robbers back to the tavern for the trial, I escaped through the servants' entrance and headed towards the visitor's center. Suddenly, the Minister sees me while talking with the couple visitors and raises the alarm. Suddenly, I see "Mrs. Ferguson" running in my direction, and this time a man with a musket! The constable! Now, I'm in a panic! Again, I make my way towards the Tailor's and this time I'm screaming for help to the point where I am nearly having a panic attack! Again, I am denied sanctuary and run through the opposite side of the door where I went out the first time. I run as fast as I can to the tenement house, only to get so winded that I stop. The Constable catches up to me and I give him my forged pass. By then, "Mrs. Ferguson" had caught up and ran to the house instead. I was arrested and taken to trial.
To describe the feeling that occured during that trial was hard. . . Imagine, being arrested and ushered through the crowd of spectators who are gasping. The head servant who had given you the forged pass in the first place, sees you and gives you this surprised look that turns into anger that you were caught. Then being sat down on a bench in front of the Deputy Sheriff. Both constable and the lead servant standing on either side of you. After hearing my charges, and thankfully being smart enough to say that the forged pass was given to me by "Mrs. Ferguson", the charges were dropped and I was to be delivered back to the house. As I was brought through the crowd once again, I suddenly had the urge to burst out into tears. . . this feeling of dread came over me. What was going to happen when I got there? Would I be berated? Would things just be calm and we'd sit and reflect on what happened and what to do next (out of character)? For some reason, I let my emotions get in the way this time, and the first thing that came out of my mouth was...
"She's going to sell me!"
At the final program, Mrs. Ferguson and I were to go and take a writing class together. From my research, as long as the master or mistress permitted it, slaves were allowed to read and write up until the early 19th century when there were uprisings such as Nat Turner's Rebellion and the Rebellion of Haiti that sparked a law prohibiting slaves from learning how to read and write. Anyway, as we were doing the writing class lead by Benjamin Bartgis, I had an idea. I had taken the money I still had on my person and placed it on the table and attempted to barter for my freedom.
The uncomfortableness in the room was present. I figured that this would be a perfect way to end the day's program. Hopefully with a happy ending. However, that happy ending did not come. Deep down, I felt heavy pangs of disappointment. My heart was aching, and by then I had to break character. I felt as if I was too immersed into my character and I excused myself and and went to go get some air. In fact, I was ready to go home.
By the end of the day, I was so emotionally and mentally exhausted that I could only reflect on the day play by play and just think... wow. This is what an enslaved person went through. While yes, my interpretation of a runaway slave and the charges were dropped and there was the threat of being sold if I ran away again, all of that was faked. I was an actor!... There were ACTUAL people who lived and experienced this every day who suffered far worse if they were caught. (For the sake of my own sanity, I won't post what those conditions were. )
My Sunday started at 4am. I get up and get dressed in my sunday's best (the same outfit I wore the previous day, but with a white cap and a checkered linen apron and my new black clocked stockings). By 7am the Minister and his wife swing by my house to pick me up and off we go to the Historic site to set up for church services. When we finally arrived, we had a little bit of trouble getting past the gate (since the museum and gardens was closed to the public we had to call the event coordinators to get the pass code to get in.) Still feeling mentally exhausted, I decided to just ditch the 1st person impression and just cruise around. While the other servants were setting up for the church service, I connected with some of the participants and asked them about their experiences with this weekend and what it was like to spend the night in the tennant house and the carpenter's shop. Their responses were all the same: They all got to know each other a little more intimately by huddling up together and sleeping as close and safely as they could by the hearth; some folks had to stay up to be on fire duty too, which was incredibly important.
The church service began promptly at 10 am (You can see it here). Being my very first time doing a period correct church service, I was very excited to participate and also curious of the protocol that went along with the service; it was very interesting. My friend Andy who who portrayed the Anglican minister's wife, explained to the congregation before the taping started that as per tradition it was required that the congregation be separated with men on one side and women on the other side (to prevent impure thoughts or actions from happening), upper class would sit in the first rows, the middle class would sit in the second row, the poor would sit in the third row, and the servants and slaves would sit in the final row. As the Minister went on with the morning prayers (we actually did the same morning prayers they did January 21st 1680 I believe) there was a lot of kneeling on pillows and cloths and praying and calls and responses. By the end of the service, we all retired to the basement for refreshments and more Q&A on church services in the 18th century.
Around 11:00, the majority of the ladies and myself went on the garden tour lead by Kyle Dalton the Programs director and coordinator of this event, and we saw a lot of interesting things such as how huge the gardens really were (I can only imagine how beautiful they will look in the spring), and even saw something that we were very much caught off guard with. An unmarked gravesite of all of the residences that lived in the Alms's house. Mr. Dalton explained that the graveyard was segregated. One side was for the white residents and the right side was for the black residences. In the middle was a watermelon patch that separated the two. The ladies and myself stood there in awe and in disbelief that something like this ever existed. After paying our respects, we went back to the visitor's center and bought some more things from the gift shop and the rummage sale that Mrs. Riley had spread out in one of the classrooms.
Around noon, I decided to warm up a little more by going to the Tailor's shop and conversed for a while until I had to head home for the day. By the time I got home though, I was ready to strip everything off, get back into my 21st century clothes and sleep until the next day.
Coming away from this experiment really gave me a focused insight on what it was like to live in 18th century Maryland, and morso what it was like for my some of my ancestors who were enslaved. While I did tons of research and mental prep to get ready for this impression, I found myself emotionally unprepared for what I was opening myself up to this weekend. There were times where I had to break character and pull myself back into reality (into the 21st century) and take mental breaks (whenever I had some alone time) say out loud, "Nastassia, you're okay. None of this is real. Just take a deep breath). There were moments when I was on the run and I found myself anxious, on edge, and hyperventilating, and a moment where I nearly burst out into tears in front of a room of spectators when I was being taken back to my "Mistress." After just 1 day, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Just imagine what it was like for slaves who lived this every single day of their lives?
There will be another event similar to this one in October. Will I participate? . . . Definitely! I'm already thinking up new scenarios and better ways to improve on my impressions. Better answers to questions that I was asked this weekend by spectators, etc.
|Courtesy of Wilson Freeman