by K. Barrett Bilali
Urban News Service
Philadelphia resident Antoine Randolph Watts likes to dress up. But most of his outfits are out of date. Like 200 years out of date.
And he often changes his voice, accent and beard length with each outfit.
“No, I don’t have a personality disorder,” says Watts. “I’m what’s called a first-person impressionist.” He is also part of a growing industry called edutainment.
Watts is one of thousands of Americans who transform themselves into real-life historic personalities from this country’s collective past. Their period costumes are accurate. They change their walk, their speech and learn every aspect of people’s lives and times in minute detail — so much so that their audiences may feel as if they have transited a time tunnel. It is live history, up close and personal.
Like those from other backgrounds, black edutainers share a common ability to portray characters, an abiding love of teaching and, somewhere along the way, they all were bitten by the history bug.
Watts says he was bitten quite young.
“I was 6 years old, watching a John Wayne movie called The Horse Soldiers,” says Watts, 42, telling the story as if it happened yesterday. “John Wayne took his patrol behind Confederate enemy lines to a final stand at Newton Station.”
Watts is clean-shaven and speaks with a French accent when he dons a Revolutionary-era suit and depicts Joseph Bologne, le Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799). Bologne was a French-African composer, violin virtuoso, swordsman and colonel during the French Revolution.
When he portrays James Forten, Watts wears mutton chops. Forten (1766-1842) was an American Revolutionary naval veteran, sail maker, abolitionist, writer and owner of a Philadelphia sail loft.
But Watts’s favorite and best-known character is Jacob Clement White Jr. (1836-1902), a role that requires a full beard. White was the first graduate of the Institute for Colored Youth, which grew into Cheney University. White became Philadelphia’s first African-American school principal in 1866.
“It takes me three or four months to grow my beard to portray Prof. White,” says Watts, who acknowledged that he prepares months in advance for all of his roles. He studies the lives of all of his characters in great detail.
“We are a part of the black edutainment industry,” says Ludger Balan, president of Che Nautical Edutainment. Balan is also the communications director for the United States Colored Troops Living History Association.
Balan helps coordinate black edutainment programs and historic war reenactments across America from his office in Queens, New York.
“This industry includes historical interpreters, impressionists, reenactors, storytellers and any highly educational event which is a performance,” says Balan.
These dedicated and often part-time performers work in schools, colleges and other venues. Most edutainment organizations are non-profits. However, they earn revenues that go back into higher-quality productions, authentic materials for props and constant research and writing, Balan says.
“One of our greatest challenges is finding enough interest in our schools,” says Balan. “America just doesn’t celebrate its history anymore.”
Sharon Banks discovered the effectiveness of black edutainment. The head librarian at the Queens Library in Cambria Heights, New York, contracted Balan’s organization to stage a Black History Month appearance in February. “He made what could be dry, dusty history pages come alive,” says Banks.
Balan unveiled a 3D diorama representing life in the Civil War. It was “like a Lionel train display, without the trains,” Banks says, noting Balan delivered his presentation to students of varying ages.
“The younger children were just starting to learn about the Civil War,” says Banks. “They were completely mesmerized by the visuals and what life looked like in the 1800s.”
Dressed in complete Civil War soldier regalia and a commanding voice, Balan made the children stand at attention as the program started.
“They have never been told to stand at attention,” says Banks. “He knew how to command their attention from the beginning.”
“There is a big difference between studying and reading about an historic figure and having him or her stand in front of the class and answer questions,” says Fred Morsell, drama teacher, actor and scholar on Frederick Douglass, his life and turbulent times. Douglass (1818-1895) was a former slave who became a leading abolitionist.
Morsell has written a one-man, two-act play called Remembering Mr. Frederick Douglass. He has performed it before hundreds of schools, civic groups, libraries and churches. Now, at 74, he need not worry about his beard and hair. Both are gray, and he keeps them both long — just like Frederick Douglass.
“I never know when I will be called on to perform,” says Morsell.