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It’s Not Easy Being A Slave (And Neither Is Playing One)

It's Not Easy Being A Slave (And Neither Is Playing One)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this story is
that the people who run Colonial Williamsburg are surprised. I mean why should
anyone be?

What I’m referring to is a story that appeared today in The
Washington Post
that Colonial Williamsburg, the “living history” museum and town in Virginia
which replicates 18th Century colonial  Williamsburg, VA, complete with historical buildings and reenactors
portraying people of the period, is having
trouble finding black actors to play slaves.

Of the regular 44 actors who play roles at Williamsburg,
11 are black and several roles, especially those for young black male slaves,
go begging. Stephen Seals, who started out as a slave reenactor and who now supervises
all the Williamsburg actors, admits it’s hard but understands why it’s so tough to
find black actors: “There’s always a real strain to playing an enslaved

What’s more, black actors, who do play such roles, have
to be taught to be as realistic as possible in their behavior, to be submissive
and non-threatening, such as never looking any white actors in the eyes when
spoken to, or bowing whenever a white person walks by or enters a room.

Seals knows that’s a tough order and it’s a rather
psychological problematic for a black actor to act that way. In order to do so, they have to be, according to him: “taught to be detached from your
character. Doing these roles really tests that hypothesis. It’s not for

One Williamsburg official said that: “You interview
people, and they’ll say: ‘I just can’t do it. I can’t put on that costume,’ It
comes with a lot of baggage. If you haven’t unpacked that baggage before you
put the costume on, you’re going to have problems.”

And then another problem black actors have is the reaction
they get from visitors who get too involved with what they’re seeing. Sometimes
theygrab prop guns or started to shout
about fighting back. Some have been known to bump or block white
actor-interpreters who are haranguing or otherwise mistreating enslaved black

Yet others have quite a different reaction. One black
slave reenactor recalls a white child once asked him if he was a slave, and he said
yes, to which the kid replied, asking him to get him a soda. (WOW, they sure start teaching
them young don’t they???

Seals recalls a white woman once asking him “Why are
black people still so angry?”
To which he had a ready reply: Post traumatic slave syndrome”.

But black actors who work at Williamsburg feel that it’s
an honor and their duty to play those roles, if only to show people the history of slavery. As one black reenactor said: “Some people haven’t thought about what
happened to our people. It’s 
sometimes hard to remember that these enslaved
people were people. They had hopes. They were proud. (They) were the true founding mothers
and fathers of this country. It was built on their backs.

Not surprisingly the black percentage of visitors who
come to Williamsburg every year is very low around 2% to 3% annually. Therefore
in an attempt to bring in a younger crowd, Williamsburg has been experimenting
with up and coming Hollywood black talent such as actress Erica Hubbard (Lincoln
Heights, Let’s Stay Together)
to basically do “guest spots” as a slave at Williamsburg, for a couple of days.

When asked if she has second thoughts about doing it, Hubbard replied that she hadno hesitation” and that she did it because “it’s our
history. It happened. It’s a time period that needs to be talked about. I see
it differently. I embrace it.”

Interestingly though, the Williamsburg Museum, which been
around since the 1930’s, didn’t start using black actors until 1979, and in
1999, a firestorm  was created when the museum recreated a slave auction which resulted in protests by the NAACP.

However, Hubbard has no second thoughts, though, make no
mistake, it’s not easy. “Sometimes it’s disheartening to see where we came from.
But you’re happy that we made great strides to get away from that mentality…All
that work our ancestors did is not in vain.”

What about you? Say you’re a struggling actor working for a role – could you do what Hubbard did?

This Article is related to: News



Like others, I cannot wait to see the Nat Turner/Denmark Vesey/Seminole re-enactment.


Why do the actors who play the slave characters have to be Black?

Geneva Girl

I went to Colonial Williamsburg as a kid and enjoyed it because I was a history nut. My father, at the time, was a history teacher and he filled in the gaps of what was presented.

I have, in fact, planned to take my daughter here this summer. Because she goes to school overseas, she has not learned about American history beyond what I've taught her. Living history museums such as this make history come alive. Such experiences start conversations about history. I read years ago that when black tourists come to Williamsburg, they head straight for the slave quarters. That's what we plan to do.

I don't think that black visits are low at this museum because of the depiction of slaves. I find that at most historic sites and museums we've visited we are often the only black family or one of a very few. Sometimes the only time we see other black kids is when they are on a camp or church outing. That's a sad reality.


Although I came to Sergio's party (y'all know that's what he do… throws a party and feeds us firewater) with a smile on my face and humor on my voice, but these comments really have me thinking. I mean, I tried to bring a little conviviality to the party but you guys have shined a light on the more serious nature of this reenactment thang. So I'm wondering what GABRIEL TOLLIVER (below) is on? He said–> "it's a place I think all African-Americans and white Americans should visit." Well hell, maybe he know something that we don't? He did say the historical interpreters really break it down, so maybe we're missing the point?

Well, since I know a little bit of something about a religious text, Christian legend says that Gabriel is the one spoken of in the Book of Revelation who blows the final trumpet announcing Judgment Day.

So, when GABRIEL TOLLIVER blows his horn… "I did an episode on Colonial Williamsburg for my web series MONDO BLACK", it must be time for the Final Judgment, so we all better head his beck and call, right? I-don't-know-nothin' but maybe Mr. Tolliver will come back and tell us what's really going on?


The real question is why anyone feels the need to have this type of daily reenactment in 2013…..who wants a daily reminder of this period of torture, rape, mind washing and mutilation? I have been to the Holocaust museum in D.C., and they DO NOT have people reenacting what happened during that time period.


I would not pay money for this.


If you're going to show slavery then you need to show the WHOLE experience. How many tickets do you think you would sell then? They know better than to try this ish with Jews. "Hey, step right up little Johnny! Come get your temporary unit tattoo then off you go with the other little boys to the gas shower re-enactment segment of the tour. Don't forget to pick up your Yiddish children's camp cartoons and song DVD as a souvenir when you leave!"


I would have brought that little demon some nice cold refreshing Kizzy soda, and handed in my resignation directly afterwards.

It's always interesting to me how differently Black people think we should remember this nightmare legacy. I would like to visit one of the grand southern plantation houses because I'm interested in history and architecture, but there are many Blacks who wouldn't set foot near one and I understand that.

I'm just baffled how any Black person could re-enact even the most mundane aspects of slavery for the entertainment of whitefolks (cuz let's not kid ourselves, it's not education for them, they know exactly what their ancestors did)-that photo above has a young girl in one of the scenes. What? And as an actor, how do you even put this on a resume? "slave re-enactment specialist"–I could never be this broke nor hungry. Let me be dressed as a slave and have one of "them" ask me "why are Blacks still so angry". I wouldn't last half a day in that gig.


Why dont' they re-enact a bonafide African rebellion. Let's try that and see how many "white visitors" continue to visit a "museum" that shows white plantation owners and their families slaughtered on a daily basis.

Gabriel Tolliver

A timely piece and a place I think all African-Americans and white Americans should visit. The historical interpreters really break down the genesis of 18th century slavery that set the groundwork for the 19th century antebellum South. You might be interested to know I did an episode on Colonial Williamsburg for my web series MONDO BLACK produced by the National Black Programming Consortium. You can check it here:


How is this any different than the Black actors who play non speaking roles in Roots, 12 Years a Slave, Quilombo or any other project about slavery?


I've been to Colonial Williamsburg and looking in the eyes of the black actors, I couldn't help but wonder "Why the f*uk are y'all doing THIS job?" I mean, really. Who cares if it's in the name of reenactment, that whole place is school for white supremacist ideas.

Think of the reverse. A theme park about the Haitian Revolution where every day, black actors slaughter whites in the name of freedom. Think of what that would do to a kid's mind as opposed to taking them to Disney world. Ri-dam-diculous….


Although I'm reasonably certain it won't happen anytime soon, I pray for that day we no longer have to pick at this scab in order to acknowledge our history.

Kari Dee

I feel so bad for Erica Hubbard. I heard things were bad at BET, but I didn't know it was like THAT. I'm gonna pray for her career.

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