It's Not Easy Being A Slave (And Neither Is Playing One)
Photo Credit: S & A

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?

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