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Colonial Williamsburg actor interpreter gives slave a voice

By Lisa O. Monroe

B

ristol could not speak freely during his lifetime.

But now, more than 250 years after his death, he will finally have a voice.

Bristol was one of possibly a dozen slaves who found themselves in an unusual position when their master Royal Governor Francis Fauquier decreed in his will that they would pick their next master after his death.

Colonial Williamsburg actor interpreter Jeremy Morris will delve into Bristol’s thoughts and feelings during this time of decision, and bring them to life in solo performances of “His Chosen Master” beginning this month at the Mary Stith House in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area.

For the first time in his adult life, Morris explained in a recent interview, Bristol could make a decision that would impact his future. How would that feel? To answer that question, Morris researched records about Bristol as well as general slave accounts from the 1700s.

“I’m drawn to the idea of him having options, why he’s drawn to what he’s drawn to…his memories and the things he’s come to find important,” said Morris.

Little is known of Bristol’s life or personality – a situation not uncommon for slaves. He had no recorded birth certificate, birth date or death date, and no last name.

“...it’s sad that this person did not count past what his function was to many people.”

Based on research, Morris believes Bristol came from Calabar, Africa, and was probably captured and sold into slavery around the age of 10. It’s also probable he came through England, where he would have received the name “Bristol.”

He was either a manservant or a footman, and was appraised at a value of 55 pounds in Fauquier’s estate records and was sold for 41 pounds. One document shows that he was hired out to Norborne Berkeley, baron de Botetourt, a royal governor of Virginia, a few times between 1769 and 1770.

He would have had a better life than most slaves, being that he held a higher position and worked in a wealthy home, according to Morris.

Morris explained that ads posted in the press when slaves ran away are one of the few places where good descriptions of them can be found. Such ads often described a slave’s height and weight, complexion, speech, intelligence using words like “cunning” and “sharp,” whether he or she could read or write, and even the foods they liked.

For his role, Morris was given a great deal of creative freedom in deciding how to portray Bristol, said he and his manager Catherine Hagner. “I was told ‘Here’s the person and here’s the subject. Go!’” said Morris.

“From an artist’s perspective, that’s good and bad at the same time,” Morris said. “You can bring that person to life and give them triumphs and failures, but it can be frightening because it all falls to you to make sure the person is done justice. Outside of the artist’s perspective, it’s sad that this person did not count past what his function was to many people.”

Morris said he will use only one prop in his 20-minute performance to keep the focus on Bristol.

“I thought it would be a lot more interesting if it was just a guy in a room doing his best to account for a person who didn’t have a lot of opportunity to say things out loud,” he said.

For his new master, Bristol chose Thomas Everard, an Englishman who was orphaned as a child, but later became a successful man with prominent friends including Thomas Jefferson.

Morris believes Bristol chose Everard because he would have identified with Everard’s connections to England and his separation from his parents at a young age, and may have admired his rise to success through hard work.

Why didn’t Fauquier just free his slaves? Morris thinks it’s because he wanted the slaves to have some control over their futures. Their lives would have been more uncertain if they’d been freed because often, freed blacks ended right back in slavery – with no control over whom their master would be.

“The interesting thing about Fauquier is that he would go out of his way to treat his slaves as if they were people,” said Morris. He believes Fauquier really cared for them and he also decreed in his will that none of their families were to be separated.

An actor for seven years, Morris said he’s most passionate about portraying real African Americans from history. He played Martin Luther King Jr. in Richmond’s Theater IV’s production of “I Have a Dream” performed on the road to as far as Wisconsin. He’s also had a number of other roles in plays including “The Brothers Size,” “The Piano Lesson” and “The Black Nativity.”

At the Revolutionary City for the past eight months, Morris often can be found in the Historic Area near the Prentis Store and Post Office as he portrays slave Jack Booker.

Unlike Bristol, Booker had a family, and was known to have escaped once in 1776. At one time, he was owned by printer Alexander Purdie so he could likely read and write, and would have been in touch with the latest news of his time.

Does Morris feel limited in any way playing black characters during the period of slavery? Quite the contrary. He prefers to play those characters, he says, because “they deserve their voice.”

The appreciation is in knowing how much more difficult it was to live it,” he said. “I can take the costume off. I can’t attest to what it must have been to get up to it every morning and go to sleep to it every night.”

See our special events for the final week of Black History Month.

Lisa O. Monroe is a Richmond-based freelance writer.