The living history performance series, Chautauqua 2019, will feature three characters celebrated for “making waves,” said Sarah Weissman, communications specialist at Maryland Humanities, presenter of the annual event.
In commemoration of the program’s 25th anniversary, actor-scholars will take on the roles of Arctic voyager Matthew Henson, filmmaking oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and fierce sea captain Grace O’Malley on the evenings of Wednesday, July 11, Thursday, July 12 and Friday, July 13, respectively, at Montgomery College in Germantown.
“We just launched Maryland H2O, a two-year initiative looking at water through multiple humanities disciplines,” Weissman said, noting that the Chautauqua performances are “in addition to two Smithsonian exhibitions presented under the auspices of our Museum on Main Street program and our One Maryland One Book statewide ‘book club’ featuring a book detailing the Flint water crisis.”
In Chautauqua, “We always aim to present a set of varied figures, who each have a different relationship to the year’s theme,” Weissman explained. “A French filmmaking oceanographer, an Irish pirate queen and a trailblazing African American explorer of the Arctic felt like an eclectic and exciting trio.”
The son of sharecropper parents who were pre-Civil War “free people of color” War is best known for having reached the North Pole, probably the first African-American there. In 1944, Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal.
Keith Henley has been portraying Maryland-born explorer Matthew Henson (1866–1955) – who accompanied Robert Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic — for eight years. He has shared Henson’s story in places including “the Greenville Chautauqua, Delaware Chautauqua and the Greenville School system, just to name a few.”
After majoring in chemistry at South Carolina State College, the New Jersey native studied theatre education at Camden County College. “I am self-taught when it comes to theatrical training,” Henley said. “Most of my training comes under the direction of Rev. Gary C. Johnson, founder and artistic director of Chosen Vessels of Philadelphia,” one of three Christian theater companies with which Henley is affiliated.
Henley began his career with Historic Philadelphia and has worked for American Historical Theatre and other historic interpretation companies. “My passion is to tell the historical accounts of black Americans and their masterful achievements during their lifetime,” he said. “Historically, black men have been labeled as worthless members of society with no skills or abilities, denying them the opportunity to prove themselves in a society that does not respect or recognize their existence.”
As required “in preparing for all my personas,” said Henley, “I spend a lot of time reading and researching the life of these great men.”
His resulting take on the explorer’s story: “Henson spends over 18 years of his life traveling with Peary to an unknown territory proving his ability to grant Peary the opportunity to achieve his dream, while risking his life for very little pay, mastering life skills in the Arctic, mastering a foreign language while accomplishing the art of survival and being adopted by the natives. [He] sacrificed his first marriage, while trusting in a man whom he thought would provide for him regardless — only to find out that he was nothing to this man he called a friend.
“Henson could care less that he sat on top of the world before Peary; but Peary was full of rage and envy, which destroyed his relationship with a man he relied on for all expeditions. Without Henson, Peary would have never made it to the North Pole, and he knew it.
Henson was on the top of the world in spite of Peary’s denial. He defied the odds of criticism and proved his place in history as an explorer, It took 28 years before Henson was recognized as an explorer and a formidable man of valor in American history.”
For Henley, portraying Henson “is an honor and a privilege. His story is no different from any of the other men of color whose stories I have enjoyed sharing over the years,” he said. “Henson represents one of many black men who were denied recognition for their ingenuity, heroism, leadership, creativity, professionalism, versatility and commitment to God, family and community.
Doug Mishler, an independent scholar with bachelor of fine arts degree in theatre and a doctorate in American cultural history, “created the role [of filmmaking oceanographer Jacques Cousteau] as a special request from us,” Weissman said.
To prepare for playing his childhood hero, Mishler said he “went scuba diving,” immediately qualifying his statement: “Actually that is almost true. I got into scuba diving and became a diving instructor for years because of Cousteau. And so, when asked to take him on, I relished the idea.”
Reno, Nevada-based, Mishler has appeared in Maryland Humanities’ Chautauquas since its 1995 inception. Among his characters have been P. T. Barnum, Theodore Roosevelt, William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ford, Jefferson Davis, George Wallace, Upton Sinclair, Major General Robert Ross and General Joseph Pershing.
How does this role compare to his others? “Cousteau’s story fits in well with many characters I do as they are all deeply and compellingly motivated to take on a great task. From Ford creating automobiles to Barnum’s circuses to General Ross burning down Washington D.C. in 1812, they, like Theodore Roosevelt, all had a calling and passionately pursued it.”
As a historic figure, Mishler said that Cousteau (1910-1997) “is critically important in popularizing underwater diving and exploration, but also became a critical figure in the ‘60s and ‘70s for the environmental movement. Though not as prestigious as Rachel Carson, Cousteau was arguably the first popular figure to warn about the pollution of the seas and his reach with films, television, etc., was immense.”
The third figure in this year’s Chautauqua is Grace O’Malley (1530-1603) was known as the Pirate Queen of Ireland. “We’ve also never had a figure quite like a pirate queen, so we’re excited to try something new,” Weissman said.
O’Malley, who commanded the west coast of Ireland and an entire fleet of ships, will be played by Mary Ann Jung, who first took part in a Maryland Chautauqua in 2000. The Arnold, Maryland-based actor who holds a bachelor’s degree in Elizabethan history from the University of Maryland, began performing at the Maryland Renaissance Festival in 1980. “I fell in love with being in costume and accent all day long, which inspired me to write my first one-woman show about Queen Elizabeth I,” she said. “I learned on the job nine hours a day [at the MRF] and am now an award-winning actress and Smithsonian Scholar with 40 years of experience and 12 shows about famous women in history.” Those famous women include Clara Barton, Rosalie Stier Calvert, Julia Child and Amelia Earhart.
Sixteen years ago, Jung said, “I created a Pee Wee Pirates kids’ show as the Pirate Queen for the Maryland Renaissance Festival. My adult audiences wanted to learn about her, too, so I created a grownup version with more detailed accounts of her exploits.”
To prepare for a role, said Jung, “ I spend eight months researching the woman, her era, clothes etc. before I write a script. Then find costumes, props and decide how to make the show interactive since that’s what audiences love best. Then I memorize the script leaving places for me to play and improv with the audience. The longer I do a show, the richer it becomes as I’m always learning more.”
About O’Malley as a historical figure, Jung observed, “She’s fascinating and surprisingly little known, given her audacity facing down Queen Elizabeth I of England. She commanded an entire fleet of ships, hundreds of soldiers and sailors and was chieftain of her clan — unheard of for women in the 1500s! Clearly, she was strong, a fierce fighter and treated her men well or they could have left at any time.”
In contrast to Jung’s other characters, she noted, “There are more gaps in her story than my other characters. We have no idea what she looked like, when she died or what from and other facts. She ties into a hugely popular idea of pirates, but was much more than that. She fought against the English policy of submission so to them, she was ‘the nurse of all rebellions.’ But she also fought other Irish clans. She considered herself a trader foremost, so sailing is part of my show.”
Maryland Humanities presents the 2019 Chautauqua in the High Technology Building’s Globe Hall at Montgomery College, 20200 Observation Drive, Germantown, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 10 (Matthew Henson); 7 p.m. Thursday, July 11 (Jacques Cousteau) and 7 p.m. Friday, July 12 (Grace O’Malley). The shows, which also will be presented in seven other Maryland counties, begin with live musical and theatrical acts and are followed by question-and-answer sessions with the actor-scholars. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.mdhumanities.org/chautauqua.