Scholars awaken history with portrayals

Don’t call them actors.

The scholars portraying historical figures in “Bleeding Kansas: Where the Civil War Began” have spent exponentially more time studying their characters than the average star of stage or screen.

But then that’s what it takes to get inside the skin of a person, reconstruct their life, empathize with their motivations and craft an original script that conveys their story to an audience.

“I think the humanities council is not as worried about how theatrical we are,” said David Matheny, who portrays John Brown. “In fact, I think they would probably worry if we got too theatrical because they want to emphasize the fact that we’re scholars, not actors.”

Luckily, even scholars can be entertaining.

Matheny and five other academics from across the region will bring Brown, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A Douglas, Frederick Douglass, David Rice Atchison and Clarina Nichols to life Friday through June 29 under a 500-seat chautauqua tent in South Park.

Participants will hear Brown talk about the abolitionist cause, Lincoln describe his visit to Kansas, Douglas lay out his vision of the American West, Nichols explain how slaves escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad, Douglass discuss his life in servitude and his efforts on behalf of the Underground Railroad and women’s rights, and Atchison detail leading Missouri border ruffians on raids into Kansas and stuffing ballot boxes.

Although the chautauqua topics are historical in nature, organizers stress that part of the fun is in considering how Bleeding Kansas issues like national identity and human dignity affect modern Americans.

“I just came from a workshop in which the people there were making all kinds of connections between Bleeding Kansas and our contemporary life on the issue of race, equality for women and other matters,” Marion Cott, executive director of the Kansas Humanities Council, which organized the chautauqua, said on the phone last week from Colby.

In addition to the re-enactments, chautauqua also includes workshops, historic tours, youth programs, pioneer demonstrations and entertainment.

But the main event at 7:30 most evenings will be the scholars’ presentations. They’ll dress in period costume and deliver monologues that run about 30 or 35 minutes. They’ll take questions from the audience in character and then step out of character for further discussion.

“Some the questions get pretty detailed, pretty introspective,” said David Dickerson, who plays Atchison. “I think sometimes a participant in the audience says, ‘Gee, what can I do to stump the scholar? What can I ask of the character that he or she might have difficulty answering.”