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Reenactors Help Preserve, Pass On Kentucky's Rich History

Kentucky Chautauqua


LEXINGTON, KY--Famous Kentuckians like Henry Clay, Adolph Rupp, and Col. Sanders are household names.

But many people know them only through books or TV shows.For the past twenty years, a group of  actors and history enthusiasts has worked to change that by bringing important characters to life.

On a recent morning at Henry Clay High School, students gathered in the theater, waiting for a guest speaker.  But this was no ordinary assembly.  In an instant, the speaker transformed the school theater into a union army camp during the civil war.

"Welcome, welcome, welcome to Camp Nelson.  I know it has been a long and harrowing journey for many of you, but here you are safe.  Here the chains of the slave master no longer ensnare you." 

Students listened to the story of John Fee, a Kentucky preacher, abolitionist, and the founder of Berea College. 

"I was tied to a tree and forced to watch as Brother Jones was stripped of his shirt and beaten mercilessly.  The blood gushed from his back and his screams.  I've only heard worse on plantations."

He was played by Obadiah Ewing-Roush, a member of Kentucky Chautauqua.  The group of reenactors brings historical personalities to life through 45-minute dramas. 

"Getting a chance to introduce somebody who people don't know a lot about in Kentucky. And just letting them know how passionate and forceful this person was," said Roush about his motivations to play the character.  He first heard about Kentucky Chautauqua as a grad student in Louisville and says he was intrigued by the combination of history and theater. 

"As modern people do, I did a Google search, and John Fee's name was the first one to come up.  The more I read about him, the more fascinated I became with him." 

The Chautauqua program was founded in 1992 by the Kentucky Humanities Council, the same year in which  Kentucky reflected on 200 years of history with the celebration of the Commonwealth's bicentennial. 

"We discovered that there was no statewide program.  And by program I mean something live, something that people could see with their own eyes, discuss with each other, participate in," said Virginia Carter, the Council's executive director.  

At this point, Kentucky Chautauqua was born, but program organizers didn't want to limit it to just a theater production. 

"The venues were absolutely anywhere and everywhere," Carter says. 

So performances are taken to the people, sometimes in the middle of a street, in church basements, in hotels, and in school classrooms.  The actors must find the right balance of theatrical drama and historical accuracy.  James Rogers is a retired theater professor and a consultant for Kentucky Chautauqua. 

"What's bothering their character at this moment, that they need to get off their chest if you will or they need to share or they need to make sure that their audience understands." 

The abolitionist John Fee is one of more than 60 characters that Kentucky Chautauquans have brought to life over the past two decades.  The Kentucky Humanities Council is working on an endowment for the program to expand into more schools and make sure that the Commonwealth's history continues to live on.

More information on the Chautauqua Program is available at http://www.kyhumanities.org/chautauquacharacters.html