Virginia youth troupe brings Lee women to life
STRATFORD, Va. — For 13-year-old Jenny Schmelia, the clothes make all the difference.
She said that when she dons hoop skirts, bustles and petticoats and is pinned into her Revolutionary-era dress, she’s more Jane Washington than Jenny.
“The hair can take four hours to fix,” she said.
Jenny is one of about 12 young people who participate in George Washington’s Young Friends (GWYF), a living history group for area students in middle and high school.
She and fellow home-schooler Morgan Rizzo, a 13-year-old who portrays Lucinda Lee, performed in their first large event on March 16 — “The Lee Women: Choices at Hand” at Stratford Hall.
Morgan said Lucinda was much like she imagines she would have been if she had been born in that era.
“I ride horses and she did, too,” she said.
During the program, Jenny, Morgan and the seven other living historians there spoke extemporaneously in period speech about women’s issues that were particularly important on March 1, 1776, as the widow, family and friends of Col. Philip Ludwell Lee, the son of Stratford Hall’s builder, prepared to sell his estate.
On any other day, the five core GWYF members would be known as Jenny, Morgan, Brenna, Wilson and Paul. But at the event, they didn’t respond to anything other than Jane, Lucinda, Miss Carter, Thomas and Robert.
The members never break character and they spend time outside of weekly practice to learn sewing and other activities pertinent to American life just before the Revolution.
Morgan said her mother sewed every night past midnight leading up to the event to get Morgan’s dress ready. The participants in GWYF are responsible for making their own period-appropriate clothing.
GWYF was created in 2001 by husband and wife Skip and Diane Nolan, and Susan Bailey, who works at Kenmore in Fredericksburg.
“We wanted to start a group of young interpreters because if we don’t teach it, it will die,” said Diane Nolan.
The Nolans portrayed Virginia Justice Thomas Ludwell Lee (Philip’s brother) and his wife, Mary Aylette Lee, at the event at the Lee family home in Westmoreland County. Bailey played Hannah Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s sister-in-law, and helped the Nolans steer the conversation.
They stepped aside, however, as the GWYF members performed a vignette on their own on courtship and marriage.
“I stood back and held my breath for a minute when they started,” Bailey said. “They were outstanding. They played whist and talked about marriage, whether they wanted money, character or love.”
Both Jenny and Morgan said their characters would marry for money first to protect their positions, but love was also important.
But 14-year-old Wilson Pezzuto’s character, Thomas Lee, son of Declaration of Independence signer Richard Henry Lee, made sure they knew that their place was in the kitchen, and that obedience was a characteristic he valued.
John Bachman, a spokesman for Stratford, said, “I am constantly amazed these people can carry on extemporaneous conversation like they do.”
GWYF also performs at the wine festival and Christmas celebrations each year at Stratford.
The group meets every week at Ferry Farm Baptist Church to practice period-appropriate speech, work on costumes and learn about the time period.
“It’s like an intense, individual study course,” said Bailey. “There’s even required reading.”
Bailey and the Nolans require the children to use primary sources, such as journals, to research their characters.
Like Jenny and Morgan, 14-year-old Brenna Ross is also home-schooled. She portrayed Miss Carter, Robert Bland Carter’s sister, at Stratford.
Her mother, Stephanie Ross, said the group offers an important social component to her daughter’s learning environment.
“She is a very quiet person and the kids here are fantastic,” she said.
Paul King, 19, a student at Germanna Community College, has been with the group for six years and estimated he has performed at more than 50 events. He normally portrays Robert Bland Carter of Nomini Hall.
“Bob sounds a lot like me,” King said. “He is impulsive. He doesn’t do a lot of worrying and he enjoys life.”
His research has led him to believe that Carter was not an average Colonial gentleman.
He is documented interacting with all classes of people and once climbed a tree only to cut off the limb he was sitting on.
“He bridged both worlds,” King said.
Wilson, a student at Stafford High School, usually personifies a character named Josiah Asher, whom he created. Asher’s status changes depending on the event.
“We may need gentry, and at some events we open a store and need an apprentice-type person,” Wilson said.
Wilson plays the violin and harpsichord, which he also performs at events.
“He’s me,” Wilson said about his character. “Just with a different name, and a different language.”