I think theater is one of the most under-utilized history teaching tools available to teachers. That’s why I got so excited about the performances covered by the Baltimore Sun, linked above. Students from the Baltimore School for the Arts wrote and performed “Fighting for Freedom” about the War of 1812:
The cast and crew, all sophomores at the Mount Vernon school, researched the archives at the Maryland Historical Society for insights into the war that many call the nation’s second struggle for independence. They visited the fort several times and drew characters from ordinary people, rather than from the few made famous by the war.
~ Mary Gail Hare, “Student drama brings War of 1812 home,” The Baltimore Sun
The effort of developing a character based on a historical person, requires research into the primary sources available for that person. It requires leaving behind one’s own world and trying to access the strangeness and differences of another culture. While local Marylanders may be well-acquainted with life by the Chesapeake Bay, the world of Maryland during the War of 1812 is still a foreign land, beholden to rules of a different era and expectations that have been left behind in a pre-Civil War/pre-Civil Rights, pre-WWI/pre-WWII America.
Their research unearthed one Maryland militiaman’s letters home, accounts that inspired one of the scenes. Alexandra Morrell, clad in a floral dress that designer Erin Beuglass had created from a curtain, read her husband’s letters to their daughter as their enslaved servant girl shared their concerns. Students developed a love story subplot between the servant and the household’s enslaved wagoner. The scene ended with the young man pleading with the girl to run away.
“It will be hard for her to leave the family, but I think she will run off with her man to freedom,” said T’Pre Mayer, who portrayed both the girl’s hesitation and her love.
Lance Strickland, who played her suitor, said, “The war affected everybody, not just the people in history books, but even the slaves.”
The conflict of 1812, is also a different type of conflict, in many ways, than what we have become accustomed to in the modern U.S. The War of 1812 is the only war visited upon the United States, and outside of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the only time the United States suffer attacks among the states, themselves. One has only the Civil War and the colonial wars (and the Indian wars) to turn to for a similar sense of foreign aggressors in and among American homes, cities, and waterways.
This sort of production helps to introduce a narrative that is an authentic representation of that foreign world. As NPS Ranger Vince Vaise is quoted saying in “the show fills in historical gaps with credible fiction. ‘These kids are telling untold and more inclusive stories,” he said. “They show what average people were talking about in the Fells Point coffeehouses. They really have blown the dust off the history books. The school, the fort and the historical society give us a real powerhouse of history right here.'” Emphasizing the other side of this project that I so admire: collaboration. The archives are here, and the students and teacher put them to innovative and productive use! (Extra props for using the name of the blog, Ranger Vaise!)
Such insights fulfilled instructors’ expectations for the project, said Norah Worthington, a costume design teacher, who wrote a pirate scene and worked with the 24 sophomores involved in the production.
“They put together a picture of what those of that era faced,” she said. “They focused on everyday people, not the famous, and showed how events affected them. The stories make the war personal.”
The drama helped the teenagers understand the local significance, too, she said.
“The scenes played out on streets these students walk every day,” Worthington said.
One scene focuses on the riots that broke out on city streets. Again, the students presented a new perspective — that of an assertive woman. Calla Fuqua played the normally docile wife of a shipping merchant, prompted by the war to disagree publicly with her husband. Their encounter occurred on Charles Street, where she finds him safe after a night of rioting.
“The war was about freedom of speech, bringing Canada into the union and impressing American sailors,” she said. “I think even the women had to speak up.”
This is a new day for these students, many of whom may have had no interest in history before the project who have now experienced it on multiple levels: 1) they have experienced researching history–just as historians do–with primary sources; and 2) they have created an experience of the historical era through their performance, introducing themselves and viewers to the people of a foreign time in our community’s history; introducing them to the concerns about conflict; introducing them to the mores of a society that continued to grapple with slavery, a young government, and other problems that we sometimes struggle to relate to otherwise.
We should be doing more of this sort of learning. Take the talents that students have or are eager to develop and make use of them in education.