Martha Anne stands center stage at the Hanover Tavern’s Barksdale Theater. Dressed in a long civil-war-era dress with her hair pinned back beneath a kerchief, she tells the story of how she — a mother of 11 — escaped slavery from that same tavern and became a free woman.
“I had my children in the quarters, all in front of me. I had my skillet and I held it above my head and I said ‘come on, children,’” she says to an arrested crowd. “And we walked.”
Martha Anne is of course, characterized — a performance put on by actress Valerie Davis as part of the Hanover Tavern’s fourthgrade history field trip. Though its characterization of a factual human dramatizes an event long gone, Davis brings the historical moments, and legacy of Martha Anne, to life.
The monologue itself brought the audience — a class of fourth graders — to a standstill. At fourth grade age, such a group of children would usually be relatively fidgety, instead they leaned forward in anticipation. Although it might not seem like it, this performance is in fact part of their fourth grade Virginia history Standards of Learning (SOL) curricula.
The program began five years ago, it draws in classes from all over central Virginia and attempts to teach Virginia history through live action role-plays and monologues. While it is in part entertainment, the events re-enacted and words spoken by the characters are factual. It is for this reason that David Deal, executive director for the Hanover Tavern Foundation said that [the Hanover Tavern Foundation] aligned the program with the fourth grade SOL requirements.
“Originally when we created the program we went online and downloaded the SOL’s, so that we can see what they’re learning, then we had an education consultant help us make sure that our program tied in with that,” he said.
“We try to make it very interactive, asking the kids questions that tie into their SOL’s, so we can try and reinforce what they’re doing. We always have time at the end of every presentation for questions.”
The questions are not solely addressed to Davis’ Martha Anne. Along with Martha there are some six other
characters that represent different facets of 18th and 19th century Virginia history. The program begins in the old Hanover courthouse where the students meet three 18th century characters, Patrick Henry, Dorothea “Patsy” Henry (Patrick Henry’s eldest daughter) and Thornton, a slave who participated in Gabriel Prosser’s slave rebellion. It then takes the students across the road where they meet a civil war soldier, Cleavers Chisolm — who owned the tavern during the civil war — Margaret White, a woman who stayed at the tavern and kept a diary (which is now used as the key informant for the character) and of course Martha Anne.
The children are able to interact with the characters, they ask them questions; ‘why didn’t you go to school?’ and ‘how old were you when you started having children?’ which are answered accordingly; ‘I wasn’t allowed — as a woman I underwent a different sort of training.”
While this form of learning — which is often categorized as experiential learning — might not seem traditional, Dr. Joycelyn A. Wilson, assistant professor of educational foundations at Virginia Tech said that experiential learning is in fact a more “traditional” and fundamental approach to communicating new information. She added that in order to engage young people having them “kinaesthetically involved” often achieves the best results.
“When you’re dealing with fourth graders they have one of the most robust imaginations out there, so you’re more than likely going to get them to engage more in the material when its set to a theatrical art than when it is set to a text book,” she said.
“We have scientific research that shows when a student is engaged physically and kinaesthetically with the learning process that they are more inclined to obtain material.”
In the case of the Hanover Tavern’s history program, evidence of engagement is abundantly clear; according to Deal the characters in the program receive fan mail, “90 percent” of which goes to Davis.
“We got a packet the other day of cards and letters from kids who had been here a week ago. Some of them were addressed specifically to certain characters and some of them were to all of us. But [Davis] gets way more fan mail than any one else,” he said.
The fan mail of course is in part to Davis’ — and the rest of the ensembles’ performances — but also due to what Deal describes as a form of education that is “a lot about the human experience.”
“It’s like any place that has living history, if you can teach it in that way and stay in character, those children actually begin to understand,” Caroline Peart, board member of the Hanover Tavern Foundation said.
Peart is also the chairman of the education programming committee at the tavern and performs as Margaret White, a character that lost her son to the battle of Mannassas. Her view on the significance of the tavern’s program aligns with Deal’s — they aim to create a program that delves deeper than your average school lesson.
“I’m teaching them a history lesson — but I’m also telling them a story,” she said.
The story that they take away — as with any performance — varies, however Davis’ Martha Anne has been known to steal a tear or two from the crowd on more than one occasion. When asked why she thinks her character makes a strong connection with such a young crowd, Davis attributes the lesson to the real-life experience she and the performers create.
“It makes it more of an experience so they can see it, they can hear it and they can remember it,” she said.
“I’ve always thought that theater is better than reading a book. I’ve heard people say they would rather see a sermon than hear one,” she added.