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Traveling through History with Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson has built a well-deserved reputation for his interpretation and understanding of Thomas Jefferson. His knowledge of our third President’s personal history and his writings is encyclopedic and his recall of those details extraordinary.

But Jefferson is not the only historic figure Jenkinson brings to life. And Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week, Bryan Cultural Series audiences had the remarkable opportunity to witness three of the presentations from Jenkinson bag of performances.

There were two historic figures—Meriwether Lewis and Sir Walter Raleigh—and the third night, “Shakespeare, The Magic of Words” was…,magical.

What sets Jenkinson’s performances apart, and make them so compelling is how he blends the language of the person he is performing with historic context, bringing the characters alive.

Meriwether Lewis

Clay Jenkoins ad Merriweather Lewis

In his Monday performance at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kitty Hawk as Meriwether Lewis, Jenkinson began by outlining the enormity of the task Lewis and Clark undertook for President Jefferson in 1804.

“I was to ascend the Missouri from its mouth…Go all the way to its source, whatever that might be. And nobody knew the source of the Missouri. It was as mysterious as Roanoke was to Raleigh in 1570. When I found its source I was to cross up over the mountain range and find the waters of the Columbia system and float them down to the Pacific Ocean,” Mr. Lewis told the audience.

He told the audience that over the two years that the expedition was gone, 7689 miles were covered, most of it on foot. Only one man was lost during the expedition. Two Indians were killed, but it was an act of self-defense, although Lewis seemed to hold himself responsible, believing that if he had taken more men with him, violence would not have been necessary.

Emerging from the evening was a complex and ultimately tragic figure. What makes Jenkinson’s portrayal so real and fascinating is that he did not sugarcoat any of the facts concerning one of the greatest explorers in American history.

In 1803 Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. At the time, almost everything about the purchase was controversial. The $15 million price tag ($300 minion in today’s dollars) was an enormous sum for the fledgling country; many in Congress felt he had overstepped his constitutional authority. He almost lost a vote on that issue. There was even some debate about whether France even owned the land.

Perhaps as significantly as anything else—nobody even knew what was there…and that was what President Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis to discover.

Jefferson, according to Lewis, saw this as a scientific expedition as much as journey of discovery. The President expected twice daily meteorological readings, latitude and longitude, accurate maps and samples of animals and plants

Lewis knew he needed help and he turned to fellow soldier, William Clark, which is why the expedition is now known as the Lewis and Clark expedition.

We also learn about Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who was so important to the expedition. She had been kidnapped at 11 years of age. Teaming up with Lewis and Clark she eventually came in contact again with the Shoshone peoples.

When she did, the event became an astonishing family reunion. Unknown to Lewis, Sacagawea or the Indians, the tribal Chief was Sacagawea’s brother.

It is that type of detail that makes an evening with Clay Jenkinson so compelling.

We learn that the story of Meriwether Lewis does not end with the conclusion of the journey, although the final chapter of Lewis’ life seems tragic.

He never finished the memoirs of his trip that Jefferson demanded. Given to mood swings and heavy drinking, he was traveling from Louisiana to Washington, DC in 1809 when he died of gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen. It is still unclear if his death was suicide or murder.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Clay Jenkoins as Sir Walter raleigh

As compelling a figure as Meriwether Lewis is, Jenkinson’s performance as Sir Walter Raleigh was arguably more powerful.

It may have been the setting. Jenkinson chose to place him in the Tower of London the night before his sentence of death by beheading was to be administered. It is possible presenting Raleigh at the SoundStage Theater at the Lost Colony helped. More likely though, it was the depth of the historic context that Jenkinson was able to introduce that made the man and his times come alive.

We learn that Raleigh was a courtier of Elizabeth I, his task to appear to be hopelessly in love with her. There was no possibility of a physical tryst, yet there had to be the appearance that one was possible.

His success in portraying his courtier’s devotion won Raleigh wealth and power, yet his courtly demeanor seems to have been for show. In 1591 he secretly married Elizabeth Throckmorton a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber to Elizabeth.

The marriage was eventually discovered by Elizabeth. Raleigh and his wife fell from the Queen’s favor, although she did not strip him of his titles or lands.

That act, stripping Raleigh of his titles and land, was the left to Elizabeth’s successor King James I. It was also James who used a trumped up charge of treason with the Spanish to order Raleigh’s beheading.

Given his lifelong antipathy to the Spanish and his active role in trying to thwart their New World ambitions, betraying England to Spain by Raleigh seems highly unlikely. But during his trial, he was also forbidden to speak in his defense.

The Raleigh that Jenkinson brings to the stage is an educated man with a broad understanding of his world.

He believes the wanton brutality of Ralph Lane largely responsible for the failure of the Lost Colony—most historians agree. He also felt that if John White has stayed on as governor of the Colony, the outcome would have been better. A speculative position, but certainly John White was trusted by the Native America tribes and was considered an effective administrator.

Perhaps most enlightening was Jenkinson’s portrayal of Raleigh’s time in the Tower of London. What emerges is a man whose intellectual achievements may have been as significant as his expeditions to the New World.

He was locked in the Tower of London for 12 years beginning in 1603 and during that time he wrote the first volume of his “History of the World” managing to get from the creation to 147 B.C.

William Shakespeare—Shakespeare, The Magic of Words

Hamlet and the Gravedigger

The Shakespearean London that Jenkinson brought to life on the first Flight High School Stage on Wednesday evening was the same city Raleigh lived. There is no record that Shakespeare and Raleigh ever met, but Jenkinson noted that Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson was well known to Raleigh.

Shakespeare was aware of the discoveries of the New World. Jenkinson points to “The Tempest,” with its story centered on a shipwreck on an unknown island in the middle of the sea.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of his discussion of Shakespeare was putting context to what can seem at times an Elizabethan era obsession with death.

Death, he pointed out, was very much a part of everyday life at that time. In his role as Raleigh, Jenkinson read Raleigh’s poem on his impending death. He discussed John Donne’s poem “For Whom the Bells Toll.” The poem is part of a narrative of an expanding world—when one of us die, we all are effected, and very much rooted in the Elizabethan focus upon death.

Within that context Jenkison’s reciting Jacques’ monologue in “As You Like It” that begins “All the world’s a stage…” becomes both a rumination upon life and death and a reflection of the time it was written.

The same is true for Hamlet’s famous “To Be or not to be” soliloquy, won of the most powerful personal statements death and immortality ever written.

Much of evening was focused on Hamlet.

Shakespeare’s longest and perhaps most complex play, Hamlet’s exploration of psychology, emotions and motivation resonates with audiences as true to the human condition today as when it was first produced in 1600 or 1601.

Although Hamlet’s soliloquy on life, death and afterlife is what is often most remembered about the play, the churchyard scene with the gravedigger offers more insight into how death was viewed at that time.

This scene was the only one that Jenkinson truly performed. Everything else was a recitation of the bards words with commentary.

The gravedigger, played perfectly by Paul Lasakow is digging a grave for Ophelia, who has taken her life. He debates with himself whether she should have a Christian burial because of that.

Enter Hamlet and what follows is a wonderful interplay of language between the gravedigger and Hamlet.

It ends though, when the gravedigger pulls out a skull and says it the last remains of Yorrick, the Court Jester from Hamlet’s youth.

Saddened and shocked, Hamlet holds the skull and delivers to the audience one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines.

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him…a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

The three nights with Clay Jenkinson was one of the most ambitious projects the Bryan Cultural Series has undertaken, Big kudos to them for bringing a nationally recognized authority in interpreting history and making it come alive to the Outer Banks.

Next up for the Bryan Cultural Series is the Four Seasons Chamber Music Series Piano Trio on Sunday May 11.

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