Tonight I do another performance of "Ol' Bess Speaks at a Gathering" for a Worldstrides, Inc. student group. It is my most popular program for the incoming school groups and I love being Ol' Bess. She is still the most requested of all the Persons of the Past that I portry. But who is Ol' Bess and where did she come from?
In 1999, while working at Colonial Williamsburg, I was asked by Diane Elliott (oh, how I miss her) to be a part of a new program, "Dueling: Point of Honor." It was to be a program with three 20-minute sections, ending with a Duel at the end. I was to be section one to portray Ol' Bess (a fictional slave that worked at the Raleigh Tavern, where our program took place) who relates the documented tale of a couple of men who blustered about having a duel but their times were crossed so it never happened. I was excited about the role, but couldn't quite wrap my head around how to present it. Diane Elliott, a great Director, gave me specific instructions, while helped make Ol' Bess very real.
Well, I must have been good. People fell in love with Ol' Bess. Soon people began to stay after my presentation time and ask Ol' Bess questions about her family. "Do you have a husband?" Because I was in costume and character I couldn't say, "Hey, this is a made up person.", so I said, "Yes." Then "What's his name?" "Caesar." And so my husband was born. People seem satisfied. Later people asked if Ol' Bess had children. So I made up children. I was alredy using the name "Julius" as a son in another program, because that was the way I included my son. I had told him whenever I refer to "Julius" that is really you. So Ol'Bess had a Julius (who always ages at the same rate as my real son, Kriss) and other children. Then people began to come back to the Raleigh Tavern in the day and ask our Mr. Southall about Ol' Bess. Aw, comes the confusion!
That was when it became advantageous to learn about the real slaves that were in the Raleigh Tavern. So, Ol' Bess incorporated some of their lives into her stories. Once the program ended, I started using the Ol' Bess moniker in my Storytelling performances with "Legends."
When I started my own business, Ol' Bess came along with me, because the "Dueling" program had become defunk and because she had grown to be a part of me. I have learned far more about taverns, about the lives of slaves and indentured servants, and about the Revolutionary War since that time in 1999 and it all comes into play.
So where is Ol' Bess in life now? Well, she's about 50 years old (5 years older than my real age); married to Caesar, the gardener for Master Wythe; has 4 living children - Julius, 24 (who has run off to fight with Dunmore), Roma, 21 (who is married to Paul who is at Carter's Grove and watches Mistress Southall's children), Nera, 20 (who was most recently sold at the Raleigh Tavern auction to a man in Fredericksburg) and Mary, 10 - 14 (her age changes dependent on the the audience I have). Finally, I have the daughter who died, between Nera and Mary - her naem was Claudia and she lived 3 days and is buried on the floor of the Raleigh Tavern Kitchen (no, not for real).
So when you see Ol' Bess know that she is a wise woman, with great dignity, who has accepted her role as a slave as she is called, but is not enslaved in her mind. Peace.