Humans are wired to step into roles—for good and bad.
Recently, I went to a live play for the first time in over two years and saw Jane Austen’s heroines from Sense and Sensibility tripping around the stage in their high-waisted gowns. The crowd was enthusiastic, and the actors seemed to be enjoying themselves too. It reminded me of playing dress-up as a child. An old hoop skirt helped me and my sister imagine ourselves in another century and so did a tricorn hat.
The hat was a souvenir from a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in the mid-1970s along with a colonial cookbook my dad used to perfect chicken and dumplings. A “living history” museum, the town is full of restored buildings staffed with actors who depict daily life in the 18th century and reenact historic events wearing period costumes. I was fascinated with the whole thing—the houses, the people, the horses and carriages. We visited a few years before Black actors were first hired to portray enslaved occupants in 1979. (The first public exhibition opened in the 1930s, but it was focused on the White experience.) Now referred to as “nation builders,” both famous and everyday people are depicted, including a free Black woman and an enslaved man who became a spy.
An article I read in 2019 has stayed with me. It was called “Slavery is a Tough Role, Hard Sell at Colonial Williamsburg,” and it discusses how psychologically difficult it is for Black actors to play the role of enslaved people. They have to wear “slave clothing” and behave in a servile manner toward their White “masters,” avoiding eye contact and hiding their feelings. During training, they’re taught to detach from their characters. But for many, it’s all too much and the jobs are hard to fill. Playing the role of a White person from that era does not seem to pose any difficulty for White actors.
All of this reminded me of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. In 1971, professor Philip Zimbardo devised a study to try to understand if good people would behave badly if they were put in a terrible place or if humanity would win out. Students were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners, given uniforms—the guards got sunglasses and batons, the prisoners numbers and chains—and immersed 24/7 in a fake prison set up in the basement of the psychology department. Solitary confinement was a broom closet. What happened is best described in Zimbardo’s own words.
“Our planned two-week investigation into the psychology of prison life had to be ended after only six days because of what the situation was doing to the college students who participated. In only a few days, our guards became sadistic, and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress."
Humans are programmed to conform to social roles. Apparently, it takes only six days to become fully invested in a new one. While I was shocked at the speed and depth of the students’ transformation, Black people in America today—and enslaved people in the past—fully understand how quickly people and situations can go bad.
So it’s no wonder that Black actors avoid role-playing slaves. Six days is too close for comfort. And it’s no surprise that few Black people visit historic sites that feature actors depicting enslaved people. Perhaps they don’t have much to learn from such places. But White people sure do.
Image caption: Actors at Colonial Williamsburg. Photo by @coremillerphoto.com
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.