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American Village interpreters bring history to life

By Miriam Davis

Historical interpreters at the American Village are the people who put the drama into history. “We have an extraordinary and passionate staff,” says Tom Walker. “They have skill, knowledge and a commitment to conveying the nuances of their characters to the public.”

The job can be terrifying. A curious student might go off script and ask about a historical detail that the character would know. So the interpreters must constantly study both the period and their characters to be prepared.

William Stewart has a degree in theatre from Birmingham-Southern College, with a minor in history. He also spent many years in the business world. This background ideally suited him for his job as the officer for interpretive programs.

As Patrick Henry, he gives one of the most famous orations in American history. But not only does Stewart infuse “Give me liberty or give me death” with the same revolutionary fire with which Henry delivered it, he also wants to make sure the audience understands why it was given. Speaking at the Virginia Convention in March 1775, Henry was trying to convince the delegates to arm the colony.  The resolution passed and war broke out a month later. Henry “was a very polarizing character,” says Stewart. “He was “charismatic. People either hated him or loved him.”

Leslie Johnson has been bringing Harriet Tubman to life at the American Village for more than four years. What is important about her portrayal of the most famous “conductor” on the Underground Railroad is not just getting the facts correct, she says, but getting the story right. “I want them to gain a greater appreciation for people who did things that weren’t typical,” says the Samford University graduate. “I want them to understand that some people were faced with decisions that might get them killed.” History wasn’t her favorite class in school, she admits, but now she’s dedicated to making young people realize that freedom really isn’t free.

One of Rush Brunson’s most popular roles is that of Dr. Joseph Warren, a Boston physician and American spy. Brunson does a participatory vignette with schoolchildren in which they receive information from a secret informant.  “The kids like it because it’s in the dark and we don’t know who it is,” laughs Brunson, also a theatre graduate from Samford University.  When the informant warns them that the Redcoats are going to seize the colonists’ gunpowder at Concord, they get to deliver a secret message to Paul Revere’s wife Rachel.  “The kids have a lot of fun with that,” says Brunson.

None of the historical interpreters would be very convincing without the efforts of Nancy Moore, director of costuming.  She makes many of the costumes herself, using historic patterns to make the clothes as authentic as possible. She learned to sew in high school and honed her skills working in the costume shop at Samford University while she was getting a theatre degree.  “For the past 15 years I’ve just been doing it, making mistakes, and keep figuring it out.”