It’s a gorgeous morning in Colonial Williamsburg, and I am cheering for America’s most notorious traitor. It’s not just me, it’s everyone — 250 people, families, people in wheelchairs, people in strollers, people with dogs, children with tricorne hats and wooden guns. We’re standing bunched together in something of a mob at the end of Duke of Gloucester Street, right outside the colonial Capitol, and for a moment we are all clapping and whistling and yelling “huzzah.” We are psyched. Robert Weathers has been working up the crowd. He’s yelling at the top of his voice news about the glorious American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (huzzah!) thanks to our brave troops (huzzah!) and their talented major general, Benedict Arnold (huzz ... uh). Laughter flickers through the crowd, and I hear a dad tell a child, good-naturedly, to stop cheering. A few of us keep going. I’m not sure if the others are being funny or perverse or don’t recognize the name, but I am cheering for what just happened. Every one of us had to take a second to think about the complexity of war, and the fickleness of heroism. Meanwhile, removed from the crowd, I notice a person in period costume who is not cheering. He looks subdued, doubtful, conflicted. He is black. The speaker is talking about the necessity of fighting for one’s freedom. That’s right, I’m in Colonial Williamsburg, and it’s making me think. Revolutionary.
There are also non-employee, non-volunteer folk who will make their own costumes and walk the streets, occasionally answering questions or giving unofficial talks. “We can’t vouch for everyone in a pointy hat,” Weathers says. Each actor-interpreter does individual research during the park’s off period in January and February. Topics include colonial-era dance, boxing or cosmetics. “It reflects our interests,” says actor-interpreter Deirdre Jones. “And it benefits our interpretation. We can make these people more human.” And sometimes there are the tourists who object. “People tell me [as Kate, a slave], you can’t read!” Jones says. “And I say, there’s evidence that she could.” Kate is a real historical woman owned by a Mr. Trebell, who sent slaves to the Bray school, where Ann Wager taught them from the Bible. One of Jones’s slave characters gives tours of the Governor’s Palace — and because she would not be talkative with free Williamsburgers, the people taking the tour are cast as outsider slaves, sent to help set up a party.