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The problem with history for many is that it is dry as a bone. Facts, figures, all those things we all had to memorize to pass that course in high school… Boring.
Prepare to have your perspective on the subject turned on its heels with Sotterley Plantation’s Living History event, “The Choice Risking Your Life for Freedom,” at 11 a.m., noon, 2 and 3 p.m. Aug. 11.
What makes this War of 1812 performance any different from the rest of that boring history stuff, you ask? For one thing, the story is taken from Sotterley’s own narrative.
“One of the reasons we chose this story is that with all the pillaging done by the British at Sotterley, we wanted to tell about the human toll that took place,” Nancy Easterling, executive director of Sotterley, said. “One of the things of profound importance at Sotterley was the number of slaves that were here. There were 64 total. Four left when the British offered them freedom. They later came back and helped 48 more to escape from the plantation.
“Not every slave escaped,” Easterling added. “Some chose to stay, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t resist being enslaved. It’s a scary thing. Entire families were affected.”
In FY2011, Sotterley was awarded grants from the Maryland Heritage Area Authority, the Maryland Humanities Council and the Southern Maryland Heritage Area Consortium to create a living history script from Sotterley’s unique story of the War of 1812, as well as the costuming and props needed for the production. Dale Jones wrote the script from documents unearthed by Sotterley Historian and Educational Director Jeanne Pirtle. Donna Diaz is the director of the performance.
“Right away we knew it was something special,” Easterling said. “The story is important for Sotterley but it plays into the story of the entire county.”
The War of 1812 was a difficult time for residents of Southern Maryland. The Redcoats pillaged and burned most waterfront homes, especially if they encountered resistance. They carried off property and slaves, leaving most impoverished in the aftermath. Entire communities left for Kentucky in the years that followed.
“For Sotterley, it was very hard,” Easterling noted. “It was economically devastating to have that much of your work force leave. In the performance, we focus on the mindset of African-Americans faced with that choice. We have the stories of some. Some, we don’t know where they went. Some of them we do know where they ended up.”
There is plenty of human interaction throughout the event, she said.
“The experience is not just going to see a play,” Easterling added. “You go to different places and get a feeling of what it was like.”
“You see both sides of the story,” said Eileen Miller, Sotterley’s marketing manager. “In the play, the slaves are fearful. The protagonist wants to see his grandchildren. At the slave cabin what a powerful story. And the slaves use both sides against each other. It’s a multi-layering of emotions. The actors do such a fine job with this script.”
Leon Wiebers did the period costumes for the performance “and did an awesome job,” Easterling said. “The costumes add to the authenticity. It’s very realistic. When you go into the slave cabin for the scene, it brings it to life.”
“The world is not black and white,” Miller added. “It’s a story of human lives and how they had to face it. Our story shows what emotions were on both sides of it.”
John Rousby Plater is portrayed by Stephen Rumpf and his wife Elizabeth is performed by Shannon Ivanchev. Shemika Berry portrays Elcie, an enslaved servant and cook and Jay Hunter is Peregrine Young, an enslaved servant. Eric Zabiegalski plays Cmdr. Brown, a British naval officer.
There is walking involved with the performance, so both Easterling and Miller suggest viewers wear comfortable clothing and walking shoes. Miller said they hope to repeat the event next year.
Interacting with the performers, Miller noted, makes for a different show for every patron.
“It makes a really huge difference as to how you experience it,” she said.
‘The Choice Risking Your Life for Freedom’
Where: Historic Sotterley Plantation, 44300 Sotterley Lane, Hollywood
When: 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 2 p.m. 3 p.m. Aug. 11
Admission: Free, but space is limited and registration is required