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“What Did the Women Do?”: Using Museum Theatre to Share Multiple Perspectives from the Past

by Anne G'Fellers-Mason, Special Projects Coordinator, Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia on

“What did the women do?” This question from our Executive Director was the beginning of our organization’s journey into Museum Theatre, and into a whole new way of approaching the subject of History altogether. I count myself as extremely lucky to be able to work in a job that allows me to put my love of history into practice every day.  My other love is theatre, especially playwriting, and I’d been pondering for some time how best to combine the two.  History is naturally dramatic, after all. The opportunity came in the form of an 1857 serial entitled “A Winter In the South” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The travelogue, written by David Hunter Strother under the pen name “Porte Crayon,” provided a fictionalized account of the Broadacre family as they traveled from Virginia south for the winter. They stopped in Jonesborough for a moment, and the author remarked on its “architectural pretension” (Strother 1857, 606). The men in the group took off for adventures on Roan Mountain and it was determined that the women of the group having, “found themselves in comfortable quarters, should remain where they were” (Strother 1857, 722).  The rest of the serial follows the men on their journeys. This does beg the question, what did the women do?

 

My one woman show, “A Sojourn in Jonesborough” was the answer to that question. History is typically told from the men’s perspective, but the women are always there, you just have to read between the lines and study the context clues to find their stories.  I decided to tell the story from the perspective of Annette Broadacre, the family’s teenage daughter. The serial commented on the surprisingly superior shopping in Jonesborough, and our archives contain wonderful information on the town’s mercantile history.  I used resources from the Jonesborough/Washington County Archives and sources I found online, such as an 1858 receipt from J.A. Wilds & Son’s store that reflected an exchange of goods for bear skins, to help flesh out the Jonesborough that Annette would have experienced.  What would interest a girl of her time, of her age, of her social status?  I took all of these questions into consideration as I developed the script.  The end result was a thirty minute walk down Main Street Jonesborough in 1856 with Annette as the guide.  The show debuted for our members, but it has since traveled to various clubs and venues to help spread the history of Jonesborough from a woman’s perspective.

 

Since the premiere of “A Sojourn in Jonesborough,” the Heritage Alliance has expanded our use of Museum Theatre.  Our goal with these scripts is to always find the unspoken voice, the untold story, and to tell it, as best we can, using the sources we have available.  Our second production, “Things Are Changing,” took a local newspaper headline about women becoming teachers and used that theme to explore issues surrounding education, race, and gender in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The play focused on Julia Bullard Nelson and the trials she faced as teacher and principal at the Warner Institute, a Freedmen’s school that operated in Jonesborough following the Civil War.

Every fall we get the chance to tell multiple stories through “A Spot On the Hill,” a play that takes place in the Old Jonesborough Cemetery.  Since 2014, “A Spot On the Hill” has shed light on the ordinary citizens of Jonesborough while raising money for cemetery preservation.  We share the well documented history of Dr. Cunningham who helped bring the railroad to town, alongside the history of Maria Breazeale, a young girl who left behind nothing but a beautiful epitaph on her tombstone.  Museum Theatre allows us to share these histories in a way that a museum exhibit does not.  Seeing a living person say the words, share the story, makes the history more personal, more relatable.  This was extremely evident last fall when we shared passages from the diary of Fanny Fain.  Her words warned of the dangers of a polarized nation, and several audience members asked if we’d written those words in response to the current political climate.  No, those words were written in 1863.

 

This past year, the Heritage Alliance produced “With These Hands,” our first full length play.  We hope to continue to grow our Museum Theatre program, to continue to tell these stories from different perspectives, and to continue to answer the question, “What did the women do?”

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One Response to ““What Did the Women Do?”: Using Museum Theatre to Share Multiple Perspectives from the Past”

  1. March 13, 2017 at 5:47 pm, Heritage Alliance – “What Did the Women Do?”: Using Museum Theatre to Share Multiple Perspectives from the Past said:

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