Revolutionary Women – An Interview with “Your Colonel” Actresses Jessica Renee Russell and Heather Cunningham

Your ColonelPassion and politics are often intertwined, and Your Colonel, a new play by Montgomery Sutton, explores that fusion during the American Revolution. Premiering as a part of the Metropolitan Founders Festival, Your Colonel chronicles the relationship between young Aaron Burr (played by Chris Ryan) and Margaret Moncrieffe, the teenage daughter of a British major, as well as the conflicts Burr experiences with George Washington (played by Kevin Gilmartin) during the summer of 1776. The personal and political drama unfold against the background of the American Revolution, during major events such as the first reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York, the arrival of the British fleet at Staten Island, and the first semi-successful military deployment of a submarine.

Playing well-known historical figures might seem daunting, but Jessica Renee Russell, who plays Margaret, and Heather Cunningham, who plays Martha Washington, approached the roles as they would any others, with careful preparation. This research gave them more insight into the history of the time a well as their characters’ personal lives. Russell, who read Margaret’s memoirs, was surprised to learn that General Montgomery, who is mentioned as being killed in front of Aaron Burr, was a cousin of Margaret’s and fought in the American Army.

“It just shows the nature of war at that time – families against each other, friends fighting friends,” she said.

Russell was impressed with Margaret’s wisdom, which went beyond her years, citing this line from the script: “My Father once told Uncle Izzy that I was born with the mind of an adolescent, so by the time I finally learned to speak my personality had already ripened to that of an old lady.”

“She’s an old soul,” Russell said. “She’s also so advanced in her thinking when it comes to the politics of her time. Underneath her corset and wig lies a very modern woman.”

Despite Margaret’s maturity, Russell said she remembers that Margaret is still a 15 year-old girl, and she honors that in her performance; she says Margaret’s true age is evident when she is seen with Burr, because it is impossible to deny when a young person experiences love for the first time.

Cunningham also researched Martha Washington, especially in the pre-presidency years, saying, “Ultimately, I have to play the Martha Washington that was written into the play, whether or not she is historically accurate. Monty [Sutton] is a walking encyclopedia; I have little doubt the research he has done! So in that case, it’s all about figuring out why she says what she says, what motivates her, and how she reacts to the people around her.”

One aspect of Martha that Cunningham struggled with was the fact that she owned slaves. She said it was a hard pill to swallow, but according to the accounts she read, Martha treated her slaves well and even thought of some of them as her family.

“We get the information that she was a slave owner, and we are immediately disappointed to find out, but it was common then,” she said. “One the one hand, she owned slaves and was not interested in freeing them upon her death (her slaves went to her grandchildren – unlike George’s who were emancipated); she even had one slave chased down when she ran away, although she was unsuccessful in bringing her back. On the other hand, it was said that she treated those slaves very well, very fairly, and punished the managers who did not treat them well. Some, like the one who ran away, she thought of as her family.”

One of the roles Martha played during the Revolution was boosting morale, both of her husband and other officers. Her contributions took place behind the scenes of the battles, but Cunningham said she hopes to portray Martha as a well-rounded women the audience can identify with.

“That’s part of the trick sometimes with historical drama – creating a character that people understand in regards to the present day,” she said. “Someone vital and real despite the fact that our world is so different.”

One aspect of politics that has changed, but perhaps not a great deal since 1776, is the role women play in politics. Despite women having the right to vote and run for office, Cunningham does not think that gender roles have changed drastically.

“Honestly, until recent history, I think women were perceived as a decoration,” Cunningham said of women during the American Revolution. “I still wonder how close we are to a woman in the Oval Office. I suspect it’s still pretty far away, and that makes me sad.”

If gender roles have changed with the times, the appeal of love stories to many has not, and the relationship between George and Martha, as well as Aaron and Margaret, are at the heart of Your Colonel. Cunningham described the relationship between George and Martha as a “true partnership that has a really sweet love story at its roots,” and Russell describes Aaron and Margaret as meeting their match in each other, due to their strong wills and desire to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.

“This brings out a sparring and rapartee that makes the attraction and love for each other palpable,” she said. “But there’s also an underlying danger in the relationship – when you have two courageous and headstrong people fall in love in a politically vulnerable time, drama is bound to ensue.”

Drama in politics is as inevitable in 2013 as it was in 1776, and much of that drama can be credited to passion, according to Russell.

“There will always be something that people are infinitely passionate about – whether it be independence, health care, taxes on tea or gun control,” Russell said. “When you have such vehement beliefs, I think that scandal – whether it’s maliciously intended or not – is bound to happen.”

Your Colonel is packed with history, but the underlying core of, according to Russell, is the humanity behind the political struggles.

“It tells history in such a human light,” Russell said. “We see the mistakes, the misconceptions. The lines between personal and political life are blurred. We also see the characters struggle when it comes down to choosing between politics or personal life. Although the figures in this play are iconic, nothing is glorified. We see their roots…This play shows the humanity that pulses underneath these politically overblown times,” she added. “The universal truth of relationships, whether they be romantic or not. How people relate to each other. How people fall in love. That’s something that no matter what time you grow up, what generation, what war is happening – relationships are the constant. Falling in love is falling in love whether it’s riddled with political conflict or not.”

Performances of Your Colonel begin January 18, 2013 at the Metropolitan Playhouse (220 East 4th Street, between Avenues A and B). Tickets are $18 ($15 for students/seniors) and can be purchased at BrownPaperTickets.

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