Sunday, December 3, 2023

Inside Colonial Williamsburg: Meet the men who keep Thomas Jefferson alive

Kurt Smith as the younger Thomas Jefferson and Bill Barker as older Jefferson at the Wythe House. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)
Kurt Smith as the younger Thomas Jefferson and Bill Barker as older Jefferson at the Wythe House. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)

Kurt Smith looked up from his shoes. Before him sat an older version of himself.

Smith was auditioning for the role of Governor Thomas Jefferson with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. He was in character for the final segment of the audition, answering questions as Jefferson might.

The audition was nearly over when Thomas Jefferson himself — or, rather, longtime Jefferson interpreter Bill Barker — spoke up.

“He raised his hand, and I remember thinking, ‘Please, anyone ask a question but him,’” Smith said.

Barker asked Smith which legacy his late father left him was the most valuable. Was it the 7,000 acres Jefferson inherited?

Smith racked his mind until Jefferson’s words popped into his head.

“It was as direct of a Jefferson quote as I could muster from my then quite small Rolodex of quotes, but it applied directly to this,” Smith said. “I looked up from my shoes and said, ‘I would take the education my father provided me over the estate that he left me.’”

Barker shouted, “Bingo!” It was exactly the line he had in mind.

Colonial Williamsburg had found its second Jefferson interpreter.

A mentor in youth, a friend throughout life

Kurt Smith is Colonial Williasmburg's young Jefferson interpreter. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)
Kurt Smith is Colonial Williasmburg’s young Jefferson interpreter. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)

Smith first sauntered down Duke of Gloucester Street in costume in the summer of 2016.

Following six months of study at the Rockefeller Library, Smith said he was scared to head out onto DoG Street and engage Colonial Williamsburg guests at all. That was the big stage, where the likes of Bill Barker performed. Smith felt his own Jefferson belonged on East Nicholson Street.

Just as Jefferson relied on mentors such as George Wythe, whom he referred to as “my faithful and beloved Mentor in youth, and my most affectionate friend through life,” Smith draws from Barker’s three decades of experience and research as he follows in his footsteps in the Historic Area.

Barker began depicting Jefferson, fittingly, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1984. He brought his act to Colonial Williamsburg in the early 1990s.

“For years and years I’ve been the only one out there,” Barker said. “I was the first name-brand historical sermon to come in here. I was the guinea pig for years, and still am in this mentoring capacity [with Smith], which I think is marvelous. Jefferson mentored so many, and I would’ve never got it without this opportunity.”

Bill Barker is no longer the only man to portray Thomas Jefferson for Colonial Williamsburg. (File photo)
Bill Barker is no longer the only man to portray Thomas Jefferson for Colonial Williamsburg. (File photo)

Now Barker has not only a protégé, but finally someone else with whom to share the experience of living his life in someone else’s shoes.

When Smith came into the fold in 2016, Barker welcomed him with open arms.

Barker shared more with Smith than Jefferson’s affections for Isaac Newton, John Loche and Francis Bacon; his violent outbursts of grief after his wife, Martha, died; his legislative attempts to curtail slavery while owning hundreds of slaves; or his taste for French cuisine and the architecture that he incorporated into Monticello’s designs.

“He gives his knowledge freely and gives Thomas Jefferson’s life to me to portray as I wish,” Smith said. “Bill doesn’t tell me how to interpret Jefferson, but rather gives me information and allows me to find Jefferson on my own.”

While Smith has been walking Duke of Gloucester Street as Jefferson for a year and a half, he still draws from Barker’s experience and willingness to offer guidance.

Barker, in turn, said having another Jefferson to speak with after 30 years is refreshing.

As they speak to one another they weave passages from Jefferson’s own letters into their speech. Only a slight drop in their voices demarks the boundary between interpreter and founding father.

Smith often looks to Barker as he repeats Jefferson’s words, deferring to the elder Jefferson when unsure if he quoted Jefferson precisely.

They trade bursts of sharp laughter about Jefferson’s embarrassing moments for brief pauses of silent contemplation over the ideals Jefferson scribbled on parchment that shaped the United States.

“He’s so incredibly relevant and continues to live on in so many ways,” Barker said. “He’s so enduring.”

Read and think

Bill Barker has portrayed Thomas Jefferson since the 1980s. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)
Bill Barker has portrayed Thomas Jefferson since the 1980s. (Courtesy Summer 2016 Trend & Tradition Magazine and Colonial Williamsburg)

Both men come from acting backgrounds, and so they don’t feel as if they’re in character until they put on their costumes. They agreed that even when they change into street clothes, Jefferson remains both on and in their minds.

“I can’t help but turn on the television and see the news or read the newspapers and think, ‘Oh, I know what Jefferson would say about this,’” Barker said.

For the two Jeffersons, portraying him with historic veracity begins long before he enters the dressing room.

“When I asked him this early on, [Bill] said, ‘Go directly to the source,’” Smith said. “’Go read Jefferson. Read his words. We have 22,000 of his letters, so read him, and discover for yourself who he is.’”

Smith said his primary resource is “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” a collection of Jefferson’s letters and manuscripts compiled by Princeton University.

He did the math. If he dedicated 40 hours a week to reading Jefferson’s work – and assuming each paper took him five minutes to read – with about 70,000 papers in the collection, it would take him nearly three years to read them all.

“Clearly, I am behind,” Smith said.

Jefferson’s two interpreters said they found many things in common with Jefferson while combing through his correspondences. For example, Jefferson lived with his mother until he was 27, and only moved out because a fire destroyed her home.

Smith himself moved back home after college so he could pursue a career in acting.

“Unbeknownst to me, I was walking in well-trod footsteps,” he said.

The third president was also someone who savored every moment in life. After 30 years with Jefferson in his mind, Barker has adopted Jefferson’s propensity for quiet contemplation.

“In a 4 mph world he needed a place where he could simply get away and think,” Barker said. “I think the essence of Jefferson is simply this: think. Think about it.”

Just like the men who pore over his writings, Jefferson was an avid reader who tore through thousands of books in his lifetime. The subject of science and political philosophy were of particular interest, and he rarely spoke in absolutes outside the domains of scientific fact.

It’s clear to both men they can study Jefferson for their whole lives and never learn everything.

That won’t stop them from trying.

“I take it in the same way you would eat an elephant,” Smith said. “One bite at a time.”

For Barker, understanding Jefferson and conveying his persona to the public can be neatly described in two steps.

“Read, and think.”

Question with boldness

When Barker first dressed as Jefferson in Philadelphia, it was purely for photo ops and celebrations. He never envisioned the role would turn into a career.

Yet when he arrived in Independence Hall, the people he encountered spoke to him as if they were speaking to Jefferson himself.

“The questions were immediate, and I wanted to get them right,” Barker said.

The questions haven’t stopped since.

Early on in Smith’s time as Jefferson, Barker asked how he would respond, in character, to a particular question from a guest.

“I answered, ‘Well, I would take a page out of your book and say….’  Bill quietly stopped me and said, ‘No. We are interested in your interpretation of Jefferson.  How do you see him answering?”  Smith said. “This was a simple answer, but completely foundational in my understanding of portraying Jefferson.”

Whether as president or governor, when Thomas Jefferson walks through Colonial Williamsburg he draws the attention – and questions – of the park’s guests.

Not all of those questions are pleasant, or easy to answer.

Smith said when he first started, he was terrified of answering questions about religion, slavery and, in particular, about Sally Hemings, a slave with whom Jefferson had children. The questions even kept him up at night.

Read, and think. Jefferson wrote immense amounts about slavery and religion.

“Jefferson really sets you up for success on those topics,” Smith said. “All you have to do is read him and begin to incorporate these quotes.”

Jefferson boldly questioned everything except established scientific fact. Likewise, few things about him are cut and dry.

He introduced legislation to curtail slavery – and even prevent it from spreading to the Northwest Territories – but was unsuccessful in passing the bills into law. To Jefferson, the institution was a “moral depravity,” yet he refused to free his own slaves.

Jefferson’s interpreters don’t shy away from telling guests he viewed the future of slavery as a score for the next generation to settle.

Whether responding to a pointed remark about his misdeeds or making a child laugh about the time rats carried off Jefferson’s garters, Smith and Barker said engaging guests conjures Jefferson from the pages of a history book.

“The task I have given myself since day one at the Foundation is this: to portray Thomas Jefferson as a human; not the dark villain nor the deified god, but a very gray, very flawed, very raw, very hopeful human,” Smith said. “Within Jefferson is contained all the controversy, all the flaws, and all the promise that we Americans experience today.”

“He is us.”

Related coverage: 

Inside Colonial Williamsburg: The life of historical interpreter Dara King, 27

Inside Colonial Williamsburg with costume designer Brenda Rousseau

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