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A Hard Truth to Portray

At one of the few museums to stage America's shameful past, slavery reenactors want to reflect more of the brutality.

June 04, 2005|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

McCONNELLS, S.C. — There are positions open for slaves at the Bratton plantation. Applicants must be willing to pick cotton, drink the master's liquor, gossip, sing spirituals, mourn the dead. The job is unpaid. Starts immediately.

Since last summer, when four African American "living history" volunteers raised complaints about scripts they were asked to read, managers at Historic Brattonsville, a museum and historic site, have been coping with the most awkward of personnel issues.

First, the interpreters who played the slave bride and groom left, complaining that their characters were mindlessly happy. The man who played Watt, the Bratton family's most loyal slave, was dismissed after ad-libbing a dark, drunken soliloquy at the Christmas Candlelight Tour.

The interpreter who plays the slave Big Jim is on a six-month "hiatus," unsure whether he can find common ground with management but talking about "systemic changes." The four have criticized the museum recently in local newspapers.

It is an odd position for the museum's directors, who were proud of the progressive impulse that led them to emphasize slavery in their living-history programs. Across the South, lovingly kept plantations are open to the public; Confederate reenactors spend untold vacation days tracing their ancestors' footsteps. But historically, plantation museums have glossed over the subject of slavery.

The experience at Historic Brattonsville -- an idyllic settlement 36 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C. -- underlines the difficulty of facing it head-on. Fifteen years ago, managers here decided to bring in costumed interpreters to describe slave life in the first person. By last year, Brattonsville had developed a strong, cohesive group of volunteers who compared notes about the feelings that surged through them during reenactments.

Four of them, particular friends, agreed that they wanted to portray the brutality of the system more forcefully. Their scripts covered weddings, funerals, holidays; after interpreting for three or four years, they wanted descriptions of whippings, of rapes.

John Joyner, a 58-year-old businessman from Charlotte, began slipping in references to octoroon concubines in New Orleans and "breeding farms" where enslaved men were forced to impregnate women. He began to improvise in the role of Watt, hoping to provoke strong reactions.

"When people leave these events, they leave applauding, laughing, and saying, 'Thank you for the show,' " said Tiffani Sanders, 32, a freelance graphic designer who volunteered with her husband, Charles. "We should see tears come out of their eyes."

'A Podium for the Truth'

On the way into Brattonsville, a tunnel of oak trees opens to a green, misty clearing. Scattered in the woods are weathered buildings: the log cabin of Scots-Irish settlers, the brick slave quarters, the Greek Revival home of the Brattons' third generation.

Thirty-six miles from Charlotte, the settlement was hushed on a recent weekday morning. Horses switched their tails in a meadow, and fat drops of water slid off the leaves. You could hear bees buzzing.

Here, in one of the brick outbuildings, a retired kindergarten teacher named Kitty Wilson-Evans seems to slip into a second existence as a slave named Kessie. Over the 16 years she has worked at the plantation, both salaried and as a volunteer, Miss Kitty, as the other employees call her, has become so deeply connected to the place that when she feels sad, she sometimes drives here and sits alone in the slave quarters.

For the first few years, Wilson-Evans' was the single black face among the white reenactors who mustered at Brattonsville, a tradition that goes back decades. But she gradually drew the admiration of local African Americans, inspiring a new generation of passionate volunteers.

Charles Sanders, 36, grew up around plantations, and his feelings about them were not friendly. His great-great-grandfather was born into slavery; according to family lore, the white master would feed him "like a cat, under the table," Sanders said. As an adult, Sanders would speed up his car when he drove past a plantation.

But that all changed when he visited Brattonsville four years ago and met Wilson-Evans, who told him that reenacting slave life could help resolve his anger about the past.

"She said, 'If we don't tell our history, nobody else will,' " said Sanders, who began interpreting the slave groom opposite his wife, Tiffani.

A similar impulse attracted Joyner, 58, who wears gold hoops in his ears. Joyner was born in Montclair, N.J., and works as a consultant to chemical companies. An ardent scholar of black history, he peppered recent conversations with references to reparations, Stepin Fetchit, the Weather Underground, black nationalism, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."

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