The closest you will ever get to being in a Star Trek holodeck is Colonial Williamsburg.
When I first arrived, a young woman in period clothing told me that I should hurry, something seemed to be happening on the lawn in front of the Governor’s house. Apparently, last night all of the gunpowder was taken out of the public magazine, and a few of the local boys were quite upset about it. A crowd gathered around a man as he shouted that the governor had no right to take gunpowder that belonged to the people. The actor looked straight at the spectators, trying to get some sort of rise out of them. Most were stunned into awkward silence. A few of the other actors in the crowd occasionally chimed in with shouts of protest or agreement. The man next to me yelled, “I disagree with that petition sir!” and I couldn’t help but giggle at such formal language being used in a mob scene. I wished my improv friends from back home were with me. They would have had an absolute ball.
The instigator put together a small band of men that included both costumed actors and unlucky tourists, and they marched towards the governor’s house. The rest of us walked behind them, and I spoke with the nearest actor on his opinion of the matter.
“Do you think it was right for him to take the gunpowder? I asked.
“It’s his gunpowder, he can do with it what he pleases,” he told me. “Besides, he may have a very good reason.”
When they were almost to the gate the militia was met by Governor Dunmore himself. The Governor threatened to free and arm the town’s slaves if the crowd didn’t disperse, after which he stomped off into his house. The actors left in a huff and the tourists left to wander the streets and historic buildings.
I walked through the old church, one of the oldest in the country. Every church of note in this part of the country seems to be an Episcopal one, which is comforting to a girl who grew up having to remind the other kids in school how to pronounce the word correctly. On the back of my town map was a schedule of events, and I saw that the next scene, “The Gale from the North,” was about to happen in front of the tavern. I ran over and caught the action already in progress. The characters were arguing about the news they’d been hearing from the colonies up north. Time had passed in Williamsburg, and it was months since the gunpowder incident. Once again a few angry actors tried to get a rise out of the crowd, and once again the visitors looked at each other, unsure how to be both audience and participant. Eventually calmer heads called for order, and once again the crowd dispersed.
I ran back to the Governor’s Palace to catch a free tour. The guide introduced himself as a town citizen, and explained that the governor and his family had evacuated. They didn’t know when, or if, they would return. He talked about the various troubles the governor had dealt with ever since the gunpowder incident. However, our guide didn’t seem terribly fond of Dunmore, and made a point to say that he found it overly imposing that the entrance hall of the house had to be lined with such an abundance of rifles. After the tour we were led out the back of the house and I looked at the clock. I had only fifteen minutes to get all the way across town to the Capitol Building where, according the the schedule, there was to be a Declaration of Independence.
A man stood on a high terrace holding a large piece of paper. He announced that the representatives in Philadelphia had declared independence from Great Britain, and he began to read off the famous words, “When in the course of human events…” After a few lines the volume on his microphone was turned down, and the sound switched over to a few characters at street level. Where the previous scenes had a casual, improvisational element, this moment was highly rehearsed and stylized. Two white men on the left discussed the possibility of war. Next, a pair of women on the right complained that the phrase “all men are created equal” seemed to exclude them specifically. Finally a male and female slave standing near the gate argued about whether any of this would have any effect on their lot in life. The sound jumped from one pair to the next. It was a compelling presentation, and it highlighted the idea that a simple declaration can’t change anything unless we make it so. When the man on the terrace concluded his speech, the actors who had been watching in the crowd turned to face the tourists and began giving their own opinions. This was our cue that the main scene was over and we were free to improvise with the actors or go on our way.
As I was looking over my map to find my next destination, I overheard two characters arguing. It was a white man and a black woman. He was trying to convince her of the importance of what had happened, while she was trying to convince him that the words of the declaration were empty unless the slaves were free. As he began to explain that even if individuals weren’t free they were now free to live in a republic, a nearby visitor called over a friend to watch “a guy arguing with a slave.”
“I’m no slave,” she snapped back at the tourist.
“That’s quite right,” said the male actor, “Edith is a free woman … though at times she likes to abuse that freedom.” The man gave her a sly smile and she shot back with a glare.
A crowd was gathering around the argument, which was becoming heated. It was difficult to watch. We all knew she was right, yet we all knew he would win. What’s more, I got the impression that the actors weren’t supposed to be making such a stationary spectacle. Midway through their fight the man said to his counterpart, “Walk with me, won’t you?” I wasn’t sure if he was trying to get the crowd to disperse, or if he had to go change his costume for the next scene.
I was getting hungry and decided to stop into one of the town restaurants. I was worried when I saw the line out the door, but once inside I was told it would only be a minute or two. The benefits of eating alone.
The hostess sat me, and the waitresses came around to put water on the tables. I couldn’t help but notice that all of the employees were black, and I started to wonder just how far they took their authenticity in Williamsburg. I was a relieved when I saw a white waitress walk in and start talking to a table across the room. I always try to treat servers with a great deal of respect, but I don’t think I’ve ever made such an effort as I did with the black woman who was dressed like an 18th century slave and brought me my chicken pot pie. Welcome to Williamsburg. Allow me to introduce you to our country’s racist legacy.
It’s funny how the different employees maintain different levels of character. Some are like the traditional holodeck characters, and are programed to respond to everything they see as though it belongs in the world they are recreating. Characters often make fun of visitors and their “traveling clothes.” The actors in the scenes are in a play all their own, and never miss a beat or acknowledge anything that is outside the world of Williamsburg. Other employees are programed with the freedom and ability to see beyond the illusion, like the holographic Doctor in Star Trek: Voyager. For example, the waitresses in the restaurants are focused on the job at hand, and don’t pretend to be anything other than a typical service professional. They have to run your credit card, after all.
The craftspeople in the shops are a mix. When you walk into the silversmith’s shop he greets you as guests. The room is arranged to keep him and his tools on one side and you and your grabby tourist hands on the other. He shows you the tools and how they work, and a young man comes out from the back to show off something he’s just finished soldering.
“Excellent,” the silversmith tells the young man, “Polish the outside, but not too much on the inside around the solder.” I can’t tell if they are acting out a quick scene to demonstrate the apprentice system, or if the man in front of me really is a silversmith in charge of a working shop.
It should be pointed out that no matter what, these are working shops. The woman in the wig shop dropped character completely to explain that their shop makes all the wigs for the actors in Colonial Williamsburg, and that handmade wigs like these would normally sell for thousands of dollars. However, the men of the time would have all been wearing handmade wigs, so it is only fitting that the town shop should make them. The children laughed at the idea that men were wearing wigs. The adults laughed when the woman explained that nearly every wig on display in the shop was a man’s wig.
The women who worked at the tailor shop did their best to keep in character, until a visitor asked if they used a sewing machine. I saw the wheels turning in the employee’s head as she considered pretending she had never heard of such a machine. She instead opted for honesty.
“I’m going to break character for just a minute,” she told us, lest we were confused or thought we had tricked her, “The sewing machine won’t be popular in the United States until the 1840s, and what time is it now, 2:30?” She looked at the other tailor. “So it’s what, 1779?”
At 3PM and the winter of 1780 I found myself back in front of the Capitol Building, but this time things weren’t so cheery. The town had been taken by the British, led by none other than legendary traitor Benedict Arnold. All day the actors had worked to get tourists to participate and engage in the story, but Benedict Arnold didn’t have to work at all. In previous scenes things were morally messy, what with the arguments about slavery, sexism, and what constitutes the rights of the people. But now everything was clear. This was a bad man. We knew it from our history books. The crowd booed and hissed like extras in a movie. Arnold rode in on a huge white horse, and he played the part. The actor kept a stern and judging gaze fixed on the crowd. He told us that we should be happy to be British subjects again. They had given us what we wanted. The taxes were back down, after all. But the crowd wasn’t having it. And so they let him have it instead.
After the great betrayer and his troops rode back down main street, I grabbed a spot in the capitol building tour. The guide told us about the different meeting rooms and what would have happened in them. He wasn’t playing much of a character at all, though like everyone he still looked the part. When the tour ended it was pouring down rain. The next building over was the coffee shop, whose tour included a free cup of hot chocolate. I threw on my hurricane-proof rain jacket and made a run for it. I was completely drenched by the time I got to the coffee house porch. The woman outside told me and the other runners that we’d have to wait, the previous tour was still finishing up. I pulled off my coat to discover I was soaking wet underneath. I pushed at the seems and realized it was coming apart. I pushed a bit more and the whole thing seemed to disintegrate in my arms. I hadn’t brought a purse, so I pulled everything out of the pockets and hung the remains of the coat on a nearby rail. Once the rain let up I would have to find a trash can.
For the longest time I couldn’t tell if the old woman leading the coffee shop tour was in character or not. There’s a performance personality that you can normally sense from a person, and she didn’t seem to have it. She seemed to be an ordinary tour guide. It was only after a few mentions of “what men talk about” and how women aren’t interested in politics that I realized she was meant to be speaking to us from the 1700s. We were led through the back office and into the main dining room, where everyone was given the option of coffee or hot chocolate. Most, including myself, wisely chose the chocolate. As the old women poured, we were introduced to another worker in the house. She was a young slave woman, and she regaled the customers with a story about a man on trial a few towns over who drank a bit too much and then got the unfortunate luck of having another man accidentally fall on his sword. Twice. We smiled and laughed, but the moment was uncomfortable. She would occasionally make references to her life as a slave. We’d hear her say, “If my master or mistress told me to do something, I do it!” and she would laugh like she was talking about a strict but lovable grandmother. There would be something in her tone that said, “What do you mean this is wrong? This is the world. How could it be any different? He is my master and I am a slave.”
Her skin was very light. While she certainly had African lineage, the Caucasian side was winning out. Her accent was different than the others. All of the actors seemed to have peculiar accents, which made me feel they were probably authentic to the time and place. But the woman in the coffee shop took on a slave accent. I think in the modern world there’s a real disconnect with slavery because we know it was so wrong. It’s hard to understand how anyone, including the slaves, could stomach it. Even when they were more than half the population, slavery persisted. And when you hear this woman casually mention to fellow actors in the street “I’ll have to talk to my Master about that,” you start to realize how the system persists. This is the world. How could it be any different?
I was reminded of a story they told at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. A young boy had been born into slavery on the plantation a few years before Jefferson’s death. When the estate was being split up and given out to the creditors, the slaves were put up for auction. The boy said he didn’t know he was a slave until that day on the auction block. That was just the way the world was.
The end of the day was fast approaching, and I made my way towards the final scene location. As I walked I saw the soldiers of the Continental Army in formation and marching down the main road. I followed them, taking pictures and listening to the music of the marching band. When we reached the scene location, the field was roped off to ensure the marchers had plenty of room for their formations. A few actors in character closed the ropes behind the army to allow more space for spectators, and I watched as George Washington himself entered to lead the charge. The war was almost over, and they were on their way to Yorktown.
I stood next to a man playing a preacher and another actor I’d seen earlier in the day. They chatted back and forth, just loud enough for me to hear. The priest was complaining about the hyperbole used to describe the greatness of General Washington, and it was clear by their joking that they were both done working and ready for the day to end. I thought about what life was like for these actors, performing the entire Revolutionary War on a daily basis. At five o’clock every day the troops go off to Yorktown, and that means they finally get to take off their wigs and go home. This may be the only place on earth where theatrical improvisation is a nine-to-five gig.
As the band marched away the actors casually trailed behind. Their typical posturing and relationships were gone, and while I’m sure they kept up their in character in some sense, once they were out of earshot I imagine the conversations about the tourists began. Like baristas closing up for the day who complain about their difficult customers, or actors whispering backstage about the man in the back row who doesn’t think anyone can see him texting, the town’s employees probably debrief the troubles of the workday and then leave it behind. Tomorrow is another day, another war. The holodeck program will reset from the beginning. And this is the world. This is life in Colonial Williamsburg.
Love your bold opening sentence, and the rest of the entire article. Well written; I completely agree with your assessment of Williamsburg.