FOLKS AT THE Isaiah Davenport House Museum are very excited about their new living history program. Our Once Cheerful Island: The World of Savannah in 1824 will portray the city in all aspects of life from that year.
The Davenport’s troupe of interpreters is giving its award-winning program, Dreadful Pestilence: Encountering Yellow Fever, a rest. “We wanted to go in a different direction,” says Jamie Credle, director of the Davenport House.
This year, visitors will experience a 45-minute production staged through several rooms of the Davenport House. They will be led through the candlelit historic house as voyeurs, peeking into the daily lives of Savannahians of 1824.
There will be humor, horror, mystery and even gossip as the interpreters dish on doings at the White House and tell tales about their neighbors. The script was written by playwright Raleigh Marcell. “I always wanted to cover presidential politics as they were in the 1820s,” Marcell says.
Marcell chose 1824 because it was one hell of a year. In addition to a presidential election, there was a horrific hurricane that struck the Georgia coast.
Savannahians reported “indecent practices” on Bay Street and viewed an Egyptian mummy brought from Thebes. Credle pored over newspaper accounts from the time to assemble vast quantities of information, which she passed on to Marcell.
“I’m not a historian, but I have a good feel for history,” Marcell says. “I turn what she gives me into something that will educate and entertain.”
Indeed, there is so much material from 1824, that the production will be presented in three parts over the next three years. In the 2007 program, the presidential campaigning has just gotten under way, and locals are debating about their favorite candidates, while next year, while the 2008 presidential race is going on, the program will present the presidential race of 1824.
“We can’t talk politics all evening,” Marcell says. “To try to encompass that year in the life of Savannah in 45 minutes is quite foolish, so it is a three-year program. This year is devoted to getting people’s feet wet.”
Visitors won’t just view the production, they’ll actually be in it, sitting close to the speakers. “I like to thin of this program as voyeuristic,” Marcell says. “People will eavesdrop.”
For example, when visitors walk into the drawing room, four ladies will already be there discussing the happenings in Washington and the social etiquette required to visit the president’s family. “In those days, people were welcome to visit the president when he was home and when Mrs. Monroe was home,” Marcell says.
The ladies won’t acknowledge the intruders, they’ll simply continue their discussion. “People get to listen in,” Marcell says.
“In the first six minutes, they’ll hear about a runaway horse, some indecent practices on Bay Street, a woman’s opinion of politics,” he says. “It’s a whirlwind tour of the year, and an opportunity to see this house by candlelight. In addition, they’ll see rooms that aren’t normally on the tours.”
Discussion will revolve around topics as diverse as the anti-dyspepsia biscuits recently arrived on a schooner and a circus that includes “Mr. Champlin on the slack wire.” Even the most mundane events of the day are entertaining 183 years later.
Each audience will be limited to 15 people, so reservations are strongly encouraged. “It will start in the shop and they’ll walk up the front steps as if they are guests,” Credle says.
The presentation will continue to the drawing room, office, master bedroom and the attic. “The attic is so evocative in itself,” Credle says.
At the end, guests will find themselves in the garden as the men continue their discussion of the upcoming duel. “We’re deciding where it’s going to happen,” says Marcell, who plays one of the men. “It ends up in the garden where we decide exactly where the men are going to stand.”
“If the primary doesn’t show up, his second had to take his place,” Credle says.
Jeff Freeman, a museum associate and collections manager at the Davenport House, portrays a man chosen by his friend to be his second at the duel. “This is a labor of love for me,” he says.
“I’ve done research on duels to prepare for this role,” Freeman says. “I’m a gentleman of Savannah acting on behalf of a friend who has had a serious disagreement with another gentleman of Savannah.”
Only one of the characters in the drama is ever named. Jamal Toure portrays the Rev. Andrew Marshall, pastor of the first African-American Baptist church in Savannah.
The words that are spoken throughout the program will sound exactly as they would have at that time period. “If the Davenports happened to drop in that night, they would hear about events that happened, word for word as it was in their time,” Marcell says.
Some of the conversations may seem somewhat bizarre, as when the talk turns to “an actual and living mermaid” that is on display at that time. Also, that mummy mentioned earlier has quite an effect on a young woman who views it.
Not surprisingly, the hurricane of 1824 was a major topic of discussion. “Darien got a direct hit,” Marcell says. “There is a wonderfully sad but very short story about a young woman and her betrothed who died in the hurricane.”
The title of the program comes from a quote describing the aftereffects of the hurricane, which hit Georgia in September. The devastation was extensive, and there were many deaths and injuries.
Ironically, some of the discussions sound very current. “You have to remind people that every word spoken here is from that period,” Marcell says. “Some things are obviously different, but some are very contemporary.”
Unlike Dreadful Pestilence, which contained disturbing images, the new production is suitable for all ages. “If you don’t like what’s happening, wait a minute and 45 seconds and it will change,” Marcell says.
As always, it’s wise to remember that this is not a Halloween production. “The Davenport House has a track record of presenting quality living history programs in October,” Credle says. “However, in the past, we focused on the horrible yellow fever epidemic of 1820.
“Our new program is more light-hearted - though we do delve into the creepy as well as the serious,” she says. “It is more theatrical, more amusing, offers more performers and the viewing of more candlelit spaces in the museum house as we examine life in a different time.”
Our Once Cheerful Island: The World of 1824 will be presented Oct. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 and 27 at 7:30 and 8:45 p.m. at the Isaiah Davenport House Museum, located at 324 E. State St. Tickets are $10 in advance for adults and $5 in advance for children ages 8-17. Tickets purchased at the time of the performance are $15. To purchase tickets, contact Jamie Credle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 236-8097.