Chandler Craig of Columbus gets in character as Samuel Houston Worthington, publisher of The Columbus Democrat in the mid-1850s. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
April 3, 2010 9:55:00 PM
Those laid to rest beneath moss-mellowed headstones in the oldest sections of Friendship Cemetery may have been gone for up to a century or more, but for the past two decades, their stories have found new voice.
Tales from the Crypt, the award-winning history project presented by high school students of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, will once again bring the past to life during the Columbus Spring Pilgrimage April 5-17. For six nights -- April 5, 7, 9, 12, 14 16 -- visitors on the candlelight walking tours at Friendship will come face to face with some of those who made the area and state what it is today.
Meet Rev. Lawson H. Snell, a preacher and teacher portrayed by Josh Bean from Columbia, or a slave learning to read, re-enacted by Katurah Jackson of Tunica. Watch Samuel Houston Worthington, researched by Chandler Craig of Columbus, as he pushes to get The Columbus Democrat to press. Or hear the story told by David Liang from Boyle about Josephus Covington, who, at 14, successfully sued his uncle for control of an inheritance.
The oft-imitated project begun by the late Carl Butler when he was history instructor at MSMS has garnered numerous awards, including the 2005 Governor''s Award for Excellence in the Arts. It was also honored by the History Channel as a national finalist for the Save Our History classroom award.
MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough is in his seventh year as project director. Researching and developing new characters each year builds leadership traits in everyone who participates, he feels.
"One of the aspects of Tales I''m proud of is that students explore intersections of race, gender, religion and class that ultimately show us how much we have in common with one another," said Yarborough. "Year after year, they show us that ''we''re all in this together.''"
On the tour
"I''ve been wanting to do this since I was little and heard about this school," said Kate Thompson of Picayune. The 16-year-old, in a red antebellum-style gown and pearls, stood next to the family plot of Mary Malone Walker Bailey at Friendship Cemetery Wednesday under a spring sun. As students rehearsed their vignettes, she told of her character''s father, who was on one of the first Navy ships to go around the world.
Nearby, T''Mary Thigpen of Quitman sweeps and sings.
"Oh, you scared me! I didn''t know you were there; I thought I was all alone," she smiles, rehearsing the opening of her presentation as Miss Mary Gumm, a 19th-century house servant to the James Henry Turner family.
Other voices, male and female, echo around the cemetery as others interpret those who lived and breathed so long ago.
Behind the scenes
Figures from the past are selected by students from a list of names gathered from headstones by Yarborough.
Using research sources including the local history room at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, courthouse records and the Mississippi State University archives, they invest months of preparation into learning all they can about their character.
Scripts are drafted, submitted, revised and rehearsed. Each student selects a production team of two or three others who will help see that character through from development to presentation, complete with props when necessary.
"I think Tales has succeeded because when MSMS students turn their original research into original performances, they are transforming history into something very personal and compelling," Yarborough stated. "Audiences love this, and they keep coming back!"
Abbie Cathcart of Starkville echoes the poignant connection students often develop with their research subject.
"There is a real aspect to it. You are sometimes inches away from the people you are talking about," she stressed, indicating the headstone of Mary M. Gideon, who died in 1861 and inspired the former Starkville High School student''s Tales persona.
Beneath the spreading branches of a venerable magnolia, Chandler Craig of Columbus portrays Samuel Houston Worthington as a frenetic newspaper editor on deadline. Finding information on the former publisher of The Columbus Democrat was no problem for Craig.
"There was a lot of information because he was a prominent man," he said, adding that some interpretation and improvisation are elements in all the dramatic presentations.
Thigpen remembers how daunting the project seemed at one point.
"I thought, oh my gosh, I''m never going to get this done," she said. But with Pilgrimage and Tales from the Crypt beginning Monday, she''s now excited and eager to see the first of several thousand visitors expected.
"We really do honor those whose lives we portray," expressed Yarborough. "We pay homage to those who came before. And every year, this research uncovers a little more of the history of this town, and piques the interest in local history."
How to go
Complete the Pilgrimage experience with family-friendly Tales from the Crypt tours from 7-10 p.m. on designated evenings. Comfortable walking shoes are recommended, and patrons are asked to arrive at the cemetery no later than 9:30 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for students K-12.
For more information about this, or the many home, garden and church tours and special events of the 70th annual Pilgrimage, visit the Tennessee Williams Welcome Center at 300 Main St., Columbus, or contact the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation at 662-329-1191, 800-920-3533, or visit www.columbus-ms.org.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.