KEARNEY — Portraying historical characters like Rosa Parks helps audiences better understand the people who helped shape our lives.
“It makes history real,” said Becky Stone. “You realize that it is more than just names and dates and facts. I have an acting background and I draw on that as much as I can because for me it’s important to understand that they were human beings, just like the rest of us. We need to realize that history is being made, right now, by us.”
Stone also understands that we want our stories to be more than just names, dates and facts.
“Our American history gets us excited about where we come from,” she said. “And it makes you feel emotionally connected.”
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Stone will travel from North Carolina to participate in “The Fifties in Focus,” a Chautauqua-style event presented by Humanities Nebraska on Friday and Saturday at various venues in Kearney. She will portray civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks during a presentation at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at The World Theatre, 2318 Central Ave. Lenneal Henderson will take the role of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Admission to all the events is free.
“Audiences will see an actor dressed in costume as a historical figure,” Stone said. “I picked a year, 1975, 20 years after the Montgomery bus boycott, looking back on the events. That means that things later in her life — and she did live a long life — the character will not be able to talk about, but I, as a scholar can.”
The power of portraying historical figures comes from a sense of immediacy.
“What I will do as Rosa Parks is tell her story and her version of her life experience and her experience with the Montgomery bus boycott,” Stone said. “I find that people generally know that it happened, but they don’t know her version.”
On Dec. 1, 1955, while riding a bus in Montgomery, Ala., Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and to sit in the “colored” section of the bus. Her arrest sparked a boycott of the Montgomery transportation system that eventually fueled the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Different people who experienced the bus boycott came up with different stories,” Stone said. “So I’ve had to make up my own standard of what sounds reasonable. If I’ve found it in two or more sources, I’m going to credit it as something I can say it as part of my presentation. I feel that what I say in character in our presentations is the best we can do to make it accurate.”
Stone and Henderson will take questions following their presentations on Saturday.
“I will answer, in character, to the best of my ability, up to 1975, based on the things I’ve read about Rosa,” Stone said. “Then I’ll take off a costume piece — usually it’s something simple like an earring — just to indicate that I’m no longer Rosa Parks, but I am Becky Stone, the scholar, and people can ask me questions about my research or what happened after the bus boycott.”
Stone believes that presenting historical information in this first-person way increases the impact of the presentation.
“The magic of Chautauqua is that you feel that you’ve been with the person and had access to a part of history that your teacher never taught because your teacher didn’t research the character to the extent we have,” she said.
Stone, 70, studied theater at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and continued her postgraduate studies in education. She taught theater for a number of years before concentrating on performing.
“I’m not a historian,” she said. “I was very intimidated when I started doing Chautauqua programs because most presenters are college professors. But I feel that I bring something different to it. College professors have the advantage of teaching the subject or the character or the period for years. I don’t have that luxury. But I have researched the character and the period, as best I can, to bring to audiences a picture that I hope they won’t forget.”