ELKTON — If you haven’t heard of Grace O’Malley, the Irish pirate queen, or Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who traveled to the North Pole, then you’re in luck because actors will be bringing these historical figures to life as part of the Maryland Humanities’ Chautauqua program.
Humanities is celebrating the 25th annual Chautauqua Summer Series with this year’s theme being “Making Waves,” highlighting various historical figures whose legacies were related to water.
The Chautauqua program is named after a word from the Iroquoian Erie language and is rooted in an adult education movement that traveled throughout the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cecil County audiences will have the chance to hear from Henson, performed by Keith Henley, at 6 p.m. Saturday, July 13, at the Elkton Central Library. Then at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16, actress Mary Ann Jung will perform as O’Malley at Cecil College’s Elkton Station.
Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, performed by Doug Mishler, will also make an appearance at 7 p.m. Monday, July 15, at Harford Community College. All Chautauqua performances are free and open to the public.
Voyage to remembrance
Henley said he has known about Henson since he was younger, but never thought about portraying the Arctic explorer until 14 years ago. After performing Henson for about 10 years now, Henley said he has learned a lot about the historical figure, who not only had to battle the elements, but also racism as he worked to build a legacy that many are still not familiar with today.
After running away from home several times as a child, Henson became a cabin boy aboard a ship called the Katie Hines. Henson was quickly targeted by crew members because of his race, but the ship’s skipper, Capt. Childs, taught him how to deal with prejudice, according to Henley.
“Because of who you are and what you are, you will have to deal with racism for the rest of your life,” Henley said, recounting what the captain told Henson. “Your fists are not the answer, but your intelligence is. So my suggestion is you pick up a book, learn about the people around you, get all the knowledge and understanding you can, and use that as a means to overcome and to battle racism.”
Henson took that lesson to heart and consumed every book he could lay his hands on until one day, while working at a store in Washington, D.C., he met a customer named Robert Peary. Peary, who was a U.S. Navy engineer, hired Henson as a valet and the pair built up a friendship, with Henson accompanying Peary on several arctic voyages over two decades.
Henson and Peary ventured to the North Pole with a crew of Inuit people in 1909. But with Henson as the lead sled, he ended up making it to the pole before Peary. Being bested by Henson didn’t sit right with Peary, and from then on Peary refused to associate with the man he had called a friend for so many years, even going as far as to omit Henson’s involvement in the expedition when telling tales of the voyage to the public, according to Henley.
Peary’s refusal to acknowledge Henson’s role in the 1909 voyage robbed Henson of any credibility in the scientist and explorer communities until years later he was granted membership into the Explorer’s Club of New York City and began to receive some of the awards and recognition he deserved, Henley said.
After death, Henson and his wife were buried in New York City. But Henley said once the U.S. government recognized Henson as an explorer, they decided to have his and his wife’s remains relocated to Arlington Cemetery with other members of the explorer and scientists communities — and as the final nail of irony in Peary’s coffin, Henson was buried right next to Peary himself.
“Robert Peary chopped his legs off at the end, but now he has to live next to him for all of eternity,” Henley said.
‘Unseen, unheard, unspoken’
In addition to Henson, Henley has played an array of other notable black men of history, such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; inventor George Washington Carver; poet Langston Hughes; Revolutionary War soldier Windsor Frye; Hercules, one of George Washington’s slaves who served as the head cook at Mount Vernon and later the President’s House in Philadelphia; and Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Whether it’s from primary sources or books written about the historical figures, Henley said he tries to research everything he can learn about the men he portrays.
“I prefer to be able to tell their story as if it was my story,” he said. “You don’t memorize anything about various things that happened in your life. You just pick a story and you just tell it … When I study my personas, I make sure that I know their stories inside and out. Yes, I’m not going to be able to tell all 43 years of their life in detail, but I’ll know enough of it that when I’m done you’ll say ‘Wow that was Matthew Henson. That was the real Matthew Henson.’”
Henley said it can be particularly difficult to find information about lesser known black figures because records about them have often been lost to time or were not kept at all in the first place.
School textbooks often leave people of color out of historical accounts, according to Henley.
With his performances, however, Henley hopes to amplify the voices of the past and teach audiences about the people who played important roles in not just black history, but in American history.
“I really love the Chautauqua program because that really opens the doors for those unseen, unheard, unspoken heroes that no one ever thought to talk about, that no one knows anything about … I would just love to see the day when we recognize black history is not black history, it’s American history. It’s all about what we did here on this land which is America,” he said.
A seafaring tale
After her husband of 20 years, Donal O’Flaherty, died, Grace O’Malley’s men would have typically returned to the new clan leader of the O’Flaherty tribe. But instead, they remained with O’Malley as their new chief, according to Jung, who has portrayed the “Irish pirate queen” for 16 years now.
“What that says to me as a historian is she was clearly very capable, very strong,” Jung said. “We know she treated her people well.”
Although women could lead tribes in ancient Celtic times, Jung said it was uncommon for a woman to do so in the 16th century when O’Malley lived.
O’Malley oversaw the County Mayo on Clare Island in Ireland and commanded a fleet of ships with hundreds of soldiers and sailors. O’Malley fought anyone who crossed her — English ships and towns, people not willing to pay her taxes, and even fellow Irish clans, according to Jung.
But she also had a diplomatic side, which Jung said she will cover in a special story in her show involving the Queen of Elizabeth herself.
Though a formidable force, there is still a lot that is unknown about O’Malley, according to Jung.
“As astounding as she was, there’s a lot we don’t know,” she said, noting historians don’t even know exactly when or where she died although they estimate it was at the beginning of the 17th century in County Mayo, Ireland.
Women in ‘her-story’
Jung frequently performs at the Maryland Renaissance Festival and actually created the O’Malley role for her children’s show there, called the PeeWee Pirate Show. Eventually, Jung adapted the show for adult audiences as well, such as her upcoming performance in Elkton, but she said she still maintains some of the fun and active elements from the children’s version.
“The reason people love my shows is they’re fun,” she said. “I’m not doing boring history. I’m an entertainer … I’m still going to make sure not just the kids, but the adults in the audience as well, are at least moving their arms in their chairs. I’m going to be telling them they’re my crew. You’re going to climb the rigging, swab the decks and I’m going to put them to work because it’s fun.”
Jung earned her bachelor’s degree in British history from the University of Maryland and has been performing award-winning, one-woman shows for 40 years. Through her “History Alive!” shows — which can be found at http://www.historyaliveshows.com/ — Jung brings historical women to life and to audiences around Maryland.
From 19th century suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Sally Ride, who became the first female American astronaut in space in 1983, Jung said she enjoys entertaining all audiences but she especially loves empowering the young girls at her shows.
“I absolutely love what I do,” she said. “I love history, I love people, I like making people laugh but I also like inspiring. And when I’m writing my show, I’m doing all that.”
Though Jung said she has also encountered older audience members who are also moved by her performances, noting that she has met nine people in Maryland retirement homes who knew Amelia Earhart and looked up to her when they were younger.
When telling these women’s stories, Jung said it’s important not only to share what happened in their lives but also to contextualize why those events were so groundbreaking.
For example, while portraying Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross in 1881, Jung said she has to emphasize how revolutionary it was for a woman to be a nurse at the time.
“I never assume my audiences know the person’s context,” she said. “Whether it’s school kids or adults, most people don’t understand how amazing it was that Clara Barton was a nurse in the Civil War. So I have to tell them in my show that nurses are all men, it’s unskilled labor, women are considered too weak and too pathetic. Even when they start becoming nurses because they have to, because the men are running off to fight, people are spitting on Clara Barton. She’s helping save lives and people are spitting on her.”
A self-proclaimed bibliophile, Jung starts her research process at her local library to check out any biographies and other books about the historical figure she is preparing to portray. Then, she turns to the internet and, if possible, she even visits some of the sites the person may have spent time. The whole process of writing a script for one of her shows takes Jung six months to a year.
“You’re not just researching the stories and the person,” she said. “As an actress, I have to know about their clothing, their hair, their makeup, their language, what accent I’m doing.”
Whether the woman she is performing is well-known or has been largely lost to history, Jung enjoys sharing information about the figure that will surprise the audience.
“Even characters that are very well-known like Julia Child, I’m still going to surprise you,” she said. “I love doing that … I purposefully pick the weird, funny, personal things that normally you wouldn’t get.”
After performing for so many years, Jung said these women are like longtime friends to her and getting into character is second nature.
“It’s just like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes,” she said.