What is it like to portray Thomas Jefferson on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area? In his new book, Bill Barker shares the experiences and insights of having done so for more than 25 years.
“The 18th-century city of Williamsburg provided the young Thomas Jefferson with the opportunity to expand his horizons when he first came to town as a student at the College of William & Mary,” Barker writes. “Though I arrived in Williamsburg much older, it has provided me the same setting in history, scholarship and public service.”
Barker recounts how he first portrayed Jefferson in 1981 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, how he came to Williamsburg in 1993, and how he has become Jefferson in a range of programs and settings, from the White House to the Palace of Versailles. He explores how Williamsburg shaped Jefferson’s life, and how Williamsburg has shaped his interpretations of Jefferson.
Becoming Jefferson probes the nature of historical interpretation, which blends elements of theater with a reverence for historical accuracy. Barker discusses how he rehearses and improvises, how he uses primary sources, how he handles sensitive and controversial issues, how he makes history relevant to different audiences, and how Jefferson has — and has not — infiltrated his own identity. He also offers his perspective on many of Jefferson’s legacies, from his love of gardening and wine to the Founder’s thoughts on education, slavery and the Bible.
“Unlike working on a book, working in historical interpretation is never-ending — it continues to live and breathe with every new performance,” Barker writes. “Interpreting is also unlike working solely as a scripted actor, where you rehearse your lines and then perform them at showtime.
“You are not just memorizing and speaking history. In many ways, you actually live it.”
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson command very different degrees of affection and attention as Founding Fathers