In the middle of a bright Saturday afternoon at Sailfest – with a backdrop of the Thames River and Fort Griswold down at the end of City Pier – a cluster of young people brought a bit of New London’s past to this very contemporary event.
The youths were dressed in period garb, and each stepped up and performed as historical figures in first-person monologues.
Mikayla Brucoli, 12, of Waterford and Malaya Coleman, 12, of Groton portrayed abolitionist sisters Martha and Mary Hempstead, respectively. Coleman spoke about fighting against slavery and for women’s rights. Brucoli reflected Martha’s similar views – and her love of the arts.
Ryder Singer-Johnson, 10, of New London and Niantic played Adam Jackson, who was born a slave. His father managed to free Adam’s mother but wasn’t able to do the same for Adam, who worked for Joshua Hempsted. As he got older, Adam did all the heavy work, with a couple of Joshua’s grandsons often helping out.
Joan Miller, 18, of Montville explained to the assembled crowd how Stephen Hempstead was best-known here for his part in the Revolutionary War. Some people called him Fighting Stephen. When the New London native first moved to St. Louis, Roman Catholicism was the only established religion there, and the lack of regard for keeping the sabbath, she said as Stephen, “was simply scandalous.” People in that Missouri city even chose to celebrate Independence Day rather than keeping the sabbath, prompting Hempstead to bring the Presbyterian church there.
These students are all part of a program that started in early May at the Hempsted Houses in New London. Connecticut Landmarks is working on a reinterpretation project at its property here, aiming to develop first-person performances based on real people who lived and worked in New London in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Aileen Novick, Connecticut Landmarks project manager, says they want to change the way visitors experience history at the New London location. They have been trying to see how visitors react and which stories intrigue them the most.
“It’s a way to bring history to life for visitors. It’s not just someone talking to you about the past but someone who supposedly lived then talking to you,” she says.
And, in the case of Sailfest, it’s a way to reach people who might not know about the Hempsted history. (A side note: While the name was spelled Hempsted during diarist Joshua’s time, family members changed it to Hempstead later on.)
The students in this program, funded through a state Department of Economic and Community Development placemaking grant, simply had to sign up to participate. They learned how to create first-person performances by teaching artist Tammy Denease, who is based in East Hartford. She knows all about historical portrayals, since she specializes in bringing to life “important yet ‘obscured’ women in history” like Bessie Coleman, who was the first internationally licensed pilot in the world, and Elizabeth Keckly, a former enslaved woman who worked at Lincoln’s White House.
The students studied up on various historical figures, reading about them in books and getting access to some first-person accounts via diary entries and letters. They discovered details about the Hempsted family and how members’ views about slavery changed radically over the course of a few generations.
The youths all decided who they wanted to play, and the result is some of what theater people call non-traditional casting.
“They picked characters who interested them, so we have two girls who are playing male characters,” Novick says. “They picked regardless of race. … We have an African-American girl who is playing Mary Hempstead, who is one of the abolitionist sisters, and a white young girl who is playing Adam Jackson, who was an enslaved man here.”
Denease says, “The kids picked the characters they identified with most. They wrote their own elevator speech, if you will, telling who they were and what their role was on that property.”
She taught the students how to get into character and helped guide their writing and performance.
Some of the participants haven’t acted before, while some, like Miller, have. Miller has done roles ranging from Marian in “The Music Man” to Maggie Saunders in “Lend Me a Tenor” at Montville High School, but, with this, she got to create the piece.
“I’ve always done a character who has been written out of a playwright’s imagination. … (Here, I’m) having to do research to figure out what that person might say and how they might speak and what kind of viewpoint they might have,” says Miller, who plans to major in English and music at Providence College.
Learning about the history of the area has been an intriguing part of the program for the participants, but they’ve appreciated other aspects, too.
“I love the acting experience, and I like meeting new people and making new friends,” Coleman says.
Singer-Johnson says, “It’s fun, and you get to learn so much. You’re with different people. You’re learning about how they think, how they think their character should work, and you’re learning about the character from those people. … I really think they should keep on doing (the program).”