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Jasmine Banks played the role of a slave working in the kitchen at the Historic Kenmore Plantation
Marti Barrett takes a picture during the skit 'The Children and Their Nanny,' which was part of the 'River Jordan: Crossing to Freedom' program at Kenmore and Ferry Farm. Many of the costumed actors were from Riverside Center.
Afterward, Fredericksburg resident Rene Marie (left)
By MICHAEL ZITZ
Saturday's environmental theater event "River Jordan: Crossing to Freedom" at Kenmore and Ferry Farm was also experimental theater.
Kenmore has often been the site of plays, including those based on the works of William Shakespeare.
This sesquicentennial drama, which could have been titled "To Leave or Not to Leave," was very different. It was more like living history, carefully scripted based on scholarly research and using professional actors.
Its two acts on the grounds of Kenmore and Ferry Farm earned raves from an audience of history buffs and from local historians and a sigh of relief from officials at The George Washington Foundation. The foundation had hoped it would engage its discriminating audience while ringing true. It did, and now is likely to become a regular part of offerings at the two local historical sites.
Fully costumed actors, many from Riverside Center, simultaneously performed five scenes at Kenmore inside the house and kitchen, on the steps and on the grounds.
Meghan C. Budinger, curator of The George Washington Foundation, explained that the setting of Saturday's theatrical presentation was Kenmore in the spring and summer of 1862, "when the Union army was encamped at Ferry Farm, and as many as 10,000 slaves from the Fredericksburg area ran away from their masters and crossed the Rappahannock, seeking safety with the army.
"Only 300 of those slaves have been identified by name, and very few of their personal stories are known."
Fredericksburg researcher Travis Walker recently determined the names of those who were at Kenmore at the time.
According to Budinger, the dramatization, with dialogue based on letters and local newspaper stories from the time, was "intended to put a human face on the events of that summer, by dealing with the decision that faced the slaves on the Kenmore property--Do I stay, or do I go?"
Each scene presented a different perspective.
Slaves who were willing to take the risk to cross over to freedom.
Enslaved people who feared the unknown.
Owners of Kenmore convinced the slaves wouldn't be able to make it on their own.
Union soldiers who considered abolition a glorious cause.
And Union soldiers who considered the thousands of slaves crossing the river to freedom more a nuisance than anything else.
"Over the last six months, the GWF has thoroughly researched the history of Kenmore during the Civil War, and in the months leading up to the battle of Fredericksburg in particular," according to Budinger. "The characters in the play come directly from that research."
It revealed the names and ages of the seven slaves who worked on the property, as well as those of the Harrison-Gordon family members who owned Kenmore then.
"We took no liberties" with historical facts, said Alma Withers, director of educational programs for The George Washington Foundation.
On Saturday morning, an audience of about 50 traversed the grounds, "eavesdropping on the conversations," as Budinger put it.
During a Kenmore scene titled "Going, Going Gone," a slave in his late teens named Carey, played by Anthony Williams, and Sarah, an older slave played by Dana Foddrell, discussed his plan to escape. Carey has been found on 1862 tax records and in H.C. Harrison's will, and the foundation considers him to have been a likely candidate to cross the river as a "young, unattached male."
Sarah is a fictional character based on the writings of John Washington, a slave who escaped from Fredericksburg.
When Carey tells Sarah he plans to cross the river to the Union side, she exclaims, "You a slave! You a slave! Dear God!"
"I'm gonna join up with the North," Carey says.
"With the Yankees?!" she says.
He says he doesn't believe what he's hearing from whites--that the Union plans to ship the slaves off to Cuba.
Sarah tells Carey he has no choice. He is a slave. He must do his master's bidding.
"You can choose, and I choose to be a free man," Carey responds.
Act Two took place Saturday at Ferry Farm on the Stafford side of the Rappahannock. There the audience watched a final scene, set in a Union encampment.
The characters included two Union soldiers, both, Budinger said, based on "real soldiers who were stationed at Ferry Farm in 1862, and wrote letters home, describing the tide of runaway slaves entering camp every day."
One, who doesn't view slavery as the central issue in the war, sees them as a burden to an army ill-equipped to handle large numbers of refugees. The other, an abolitionist, stresses the fleeing slaves' humanity and what he sees as a moral obligation to help them.
In the closing Ferry Farm scene, a slave who has crossed the river to freedom encounters the soldiers and offers his support for the Union effort in the form of labor. But he makes it clear that support would be given by choice by a free man.
"It's great that we have the quality of actors we do," Withers said.
Paula Raudenbush, director of marketing and communication for the foundation, said: "I had not seen the rehearsal, so I was blown away by it. I thought it was totally captivating. The actors just did a phenomenal job. To me, the setting at Kenmore made it so real."
Fred Franklin, who worked on "River Jordan" as artistic director, told the audience, "These scenes could have taken place elsewhere, but I don't think this would've had the same power."
Each actor was given a packet containing primary source material so they would understand their character's point of view and not just be reciting lines, Budinger told the audience.
Rachel Simpson, who played Betty Gordon, told the audience that slave owners: "Had a mindset that African-Americans couldn't survive without them. Of course, it was really the other way around. But they honestly thought they were doing something good."
Jonathan Price, who played the Union soldier who didn't want to deal with escaping slaves, told the audience after the performance, "I, for one, didn't like my character."
David Muraca, director of archaeology for the foundation, said between scenes that at first Union leaders were nonplussed by the stream of thousands of escaping slaves, but, "the generals came to see them as a resource they wanted to take away from the South." This is said by some historians to have been one of Lincoln's motives for drafting the Emancipation Proclamation that summer.
African-American actors involved said they didn't hesitate to play slaves.
"I was truly honored," said Foddrell. "I'm really into African-American Studies and it saddens me that kids don't know these stories. I will play a slave any day, because I am very, very proud."
Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163
"River Jordan: Crossing to Freedom" repeats today from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Ferry Farm and Kenmore. $15 per person. Age 12 and over. Call 540/370-0732, email firstname.lastname@example.org or simply come to Ferry Farm at