Performances In The Ice House

Educational Role-Playing at the History Center

by Josh Lederer

'I'm Josh Gibson. When you talk to me, it's nineteen forty-two...I don't know anything about Hillary Dole or your president...' The bright overhead lights illuminate his gray flannel baseball uniform, knee high socks, and black Homestead Grays cap.

A crowd of visitors swarms by a small kiosk. Two elderly women glance at each other and chuckle. The tall, affable baseball player glances at a young visitor. 'I see you're a baseball fan too, sir.'

Gibson lofts his soft, black cap and brushes his manicured fingers through his hair. 'I've got to warn you, the outhouse back there doesn't work; I've tried it,' he smiles. 'Don't throw any tomatoes... If you're nice, I'll get you tickets to Forbes Field next week.' Giggles erupt from those who understand the irony.

Gibson announces that short performances will take place every half hour in the Orientation theater, and the crowd wanders toward the log cabin and row house in the background. The din of videocassette recordings and interactive displays fills the space. The Saturday crowd disperses into the brightly lit exhibits spread throughout the floor.

Gibson retires to a carpeted bench against the mock log cabin. Seated next to him is a young woman dressed in late nineteenth century clothing. They chat quietly, at ease after introducing themselves and entertaining the visitors. The two actors are unaware of their surrealistic presence, heightened by the postmodern displays and sounds from within the renovated Chautauqua Lake Ice Company warehouse, known now as the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

A short time later, Gibson strolls over to the small theater to perform his monologue. He stands comfortably before the crowd, illuminated by diffused light from above. He speaks about the excitement of being a professional baseball player in America in the 1940's. He conveys a love of the game, the thrill of success, and the pride of accomplishment. Touching on the history of the Negro leagues, Gibson discusses the Homestead Greys and their role in the history of Pittsburgh sports. His voice carries smoothly and his dialogue is honest. The audience listens intently as he mentions the difficulties of traveling to the South in the 1930's and 40's; the segregation, the hardships. A deep sense of pride in his heritage emerges set against a remorse for the racism of his time. As he concludes he dons his hat and quietly exits to loud applause.

While the notion of role playing at historic sites is far from new, the performances at the History Center have much to offer. The museum presents a diverse collection of real and fictitious characters from the region's past. The actors entertain visitors seven days a week, doing walk-around performances as well as three- and five- minute monologues in the small theater.

The resident theater program, dubbed "Stages in History," is minded by Lynne Conner, a professor in the graduate acting program at the University of Pittsburgh and an accomplished playwright, actress, and director. In addition to choosing and researching the characters, Conner creates the monologues and directs the actors. She also writes full- length plays of historical fiction for special occasions at the center.

The strength of the program, according to Conner, is the availability of primary information sources in her character research. The History Center's vast library and archives provide Conner with original diaries, letters, and extensive newspaper clippings from historic Western Pennsylvanians. Unlike history centers which rely on first person interpretation, such as colonial Williamsburg, the actors in 'Stages in History' rely on facts and authentic source material. On some occasions, Conner is even able to speak with people who knew a character in recent history. While researching Josh Gibson, for instance, she was able to speak with Josh Gibson, Jr. to gain insight for the monologue. Because of her training and emphasis on the dramatic, Conner views her staff as "actor/historians" as opposed to "historian/actors". She wants the program to have "the full power of professional theater."

Conner sees her program as a learning facility: "Theater is always an educational tool. The greatest potential is illumination, as entertainment always is. You try to make an impact. We're three-dimensional and we deal in emotion. We can take facts and get them up on their feet. Actors [within this program] can respond to the audience....We act as a mechanism for dialogue."

The visitor interaction is the highlight of the program. The interplay of fact and improvisation is a continual challenge, and the actors must respond to visitors' questions in character. Actors are often assigned controversial or unpopular characters. Some require the actors to deal with historical prejudices and discrimination. Conner stresses that "...we don't serve our purpose [by] changing the past. I want people to empathize, mostly....Andrew Carnegie is not always thought of as a kind man. We've made him human. Some people reject this....He had suffering in his life." When faced with portraying an unpopular character, she notes that "actors have to deal with it. It's a natural instinct for an actor to play characters crowds love." Conner feels a strong need to present conflicting perspectives. "Our job is pushing buttons in the audience they didn't know they had."

The characters represent the diversity of Western Pennsylvanians in ethnic, racial, economic, and social backgrounds, and there is a strong representation of the working class in many of the characters. Steel workers, caretakers, and social reformers are represented. There are also "composite" characters who address issues and topics which can't be represented solely by recorded individuals. About two-thirds of the characters are historic, while a third are composite. A person such as Mary Peck Bond, a middle-class African-American social reformationist, doesn't have a great deal of recorded history. To present the character, Conner must rely on knowledge of the period and environment in which Bond lived.

The actors are discovered through open auditions within the Pittsburgh professional theater community and an internship program with the University of Pittsburgh MFA acting program. Conner seeks those who can "respond well, learn quickly, are bright, and able to improvise on fact." Most of the actors balance their time between performances at the center and outside work. The actors typically work between 10 and 20 hours a week at the center. On weekdays, one actor is present and between two and five are present on the weekends. Schedules change if school or adult groups request to meet a particular character.

While at the center, Conner creates an atmosphere of intensive study and rehearsal. Each of the six actors plays several characters. To learn their roles, they study with Conner and are given thick packets of material. At any given time, the department can present between 19 and 21 different characters.

The strong commitment to research, drama, and education of 'Stages in History' is an asset to the Pittsburgh region. It teaches and preserves the history and flavor of our region. The enthusiasm and commitment of the actors and the delight of the visitors are always visible.

A Chat With Josh Gibson (Garbie Dukes, Actor-in-Residence)

Q: I'd like to ask you some questions... A: Some one asked me to name the capital of Michigan. It's Lansing. Most people think it's Detroit. What do you want to know?

Q: Tell me about yourself. A: I was born in Buenevista, Georgia in 1911. I played for the Homestead Greys in 1942. Last year I was the batting champ and the most valuable player. I have two children; Josh Jr. and Helen (named after me and my wife) We'll soon be leaving town to play some games in Washington, DC.

Q: Where do you stay when in Pittsburgh? A: In the Hill District with my mother-in-law on Wylie Avenue.

Q: What do you do for fun? A: I often go to Harper's Grille, juke-joints...places with pretty women. Sometimes I go to the North side, where I was raised.

The soft, confident, voice makes you want to believe that perhaps he is the great Josh Gibson, the "Babe Ruth of the Negro leagues." There is an excitement flowing through his dialogue. Even though he is caught off-guard by one or two questions, the actor quickly recovers, improvises, and continues to construct his subject's larger-than-life personality. It seems a pity that the conversation can not take place at Greeley Field, the demolished ballpark of the Homestead Greys.

It takes some effort to change our conversation from Josh Gibson to Garbie Dukes, the actor. "Oh, you want to speak to my friend..." he replies.

A former Philadelphia native and Carnegie Mellon electrical-engineering major, Dukes has established himself within the Pittsburgh acting community. Although he is not a sports fan, Dukes enjoys playing Gibson. He attributes the addition of the character to a resurgence of interest in the Negro leagues and Josh Gibson, Jr.'s efforts to promote his father's accomplishments.

Towards the end of our conversation, a beeper goes off inside his uniform. I begin to comment about the irony of it all when he snaps, "It's a cigar box. That's what it is." Always in character. In fact, throughout our conversation, the actress portraying a Victorian woman interjects comments. When we speak about his education, she intones, "Oh, I am a college woman myself. I attended Vassar in 1887. " As we finish, an elderly visitor approaches her asking whether or not she is English. The visitor mentions that she has recently flown back from England. The actress replies, "Flying? Oh, right. That is one of those modern conveniences you speak of." The visitor smiles. "Did you know that they're taking the "h" away from Pittsburgh next year?"