'Theatre On The Road' To Resurrect History At Old Dutch Church
Most of us have had enough of 2020. Starting next weekend, visitors to Kingston’s Old Dutch Church can be transported to the past.
Theatre on the Road kicks off its sixth annual “Living History Tours” starting October 3. You can get your Kingston history straight from the horse’s mouth - sort of. The hour-long tours at the church cemetery will spotlight seven of its occupants each Saturday as actors recite their best moments at their gravesites.
"You suspend reality and you're actually meeting Jenny, or Father Divine, or Governor Clinton. The actors are well-versed, they can answer almost any question about the character."
Now, if the thought of a cold October evening spent in a cemetery gives you spooky season vibes, slow down. The troupe’s owner, Frank Marquette, is hesitant to call the tour a Halloween attraction, and as a matter of fact, October 31 is the only Saturday next month that you won’t be able to catch the show. Rather, Marquette calls it a learning experience.
"You suspend reality and you're actually meeting Jenny, or Father Divine, or Governor [George] Clinton. The actors are well-versed, they can answer almost any question about the character," he explains. "I just find it to be, I don't know, a more satisfying experience."
Theatre on the Road’s shaking it up this year, switching out staples like early New York Governor George Clinton for “new” faces like Calvert Vaux, the 19th Century architect who helped design New York City’s Central Park, and Emily Crane Chadbourne, a suffragette and art collector who spent her twilight years in Ulster County.
Jessica Boyd takes on the role of Chadbourne this year, her second writing and researching for the tours overall. Boyd says Chadbourne is most known for the art she donated to the Art Institute of Chicago, but she also installed the Peter Stuyvesant, Henry Hudson, and George Clinton statues in Academy Green — a rather hot topic for Kingston right now.
Like many cities reckoning with their past and demands for racial justice, Kingston has had a number of calls to remove the Academy Green statues. According to an online petition posted this summer, the aforementioned Clinton owned eight enslaved people. Hudson colonized the Lenape territory for the Dutch East India Company, and Stuyvesant once tried to eject Jewish refugees fleeing persecution, calling them a “deceitful race.”
In her monologue, Boyd’s interpretation of Chadbourne turns an eye toward today’s protesters, and reflects on her own activism as a suffragette.
“She expresses understanding for the notion of having more voices heard," Boyd adds. "She said, ‘In my time, we were focused on women’s voices, and I recognize, from the perspective of the Hereafter, looking down, that the suffragette movement wasn’t inclusive of colored women, necessarily.’”
Boyd says Theatre on the Road draws a wider circle this year to showcase the ways in which women and people of color built Kingston’s history. Boyd notes slavery was prevalent in the northern colonies, and in Kingston. This year’s tour highlights the story of Jenny Hasbrouck. Owned by the prominent Hasbrouck family, she escaped to freedom around the time of the Revolutionary War. Boyd admits it's hard to find concrete facts on Jenny’s life, making a specific portrayal impossible – but Boyd looked to a number of sources to fill the gaps.
"It was sort of a combination of her story but also the stories of other enslaved people like her who went to Philadelphia, for instance, to seek their freedom," she explains.
"The look on people's faces after we finish our monologues, the questions that were asked, particularly by school kids - that, to me, is everything."
The cast also includes a slightly controversial figure in Father Divine, the spiritual leader and charismatic founder of the International Peace Mission Movement. The group, which views Father Divine as God incarnate, peaked during the Great Depression — and while some of Father Divine’s doctrine may face scrutiny today, Marquette says he grew a small, predominantly Black congregation into an international movement, feeding and housing thousands of people in the process.
“He had six different locations, including Kingston, where he welcomed everyone and provided jobs for people," says Marquette. "This was in the 1930s and 40s and into the 1950s. He actually predates Martin Luther King [Jr.], and outside this area he isn’t that well known, which is a tragedy in itself.”
Marquette says Rachel Hasbrouck will close the tour with her account of the British army’s burning of Kingston in 1777. Marquette says the coronavirus pandemic has made the past few months a bit hectic, with cast rehearsals taking place one-on-one over Zoom. But in a year where most events have either gone virtual or gone home, he’s happy to see the tours continue.
“The look on people’s faces after we finish our monologues, the questions that were asked, particularly by school kids — that, to me, is everything," says Marquette.
Theatre on the Road’s living history tours are October 3, 10, 17, and 24 at the Old Dutch Church. The show starts at 7 p.m., and in order to maintain social distancing, audiences will be capped at 60 people, with 10 mask-wearing visitors per gravesite.
Tickets can be found at livinghistoryny.com — as can a virtual version of the tour, starting November 1.