Virginia’s Historic Interpreters

It’s a 400-year commute for these costumed guides.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Docents deliver, tour guides can inspire, but a skilled interpreter, outfitted in full period costume, has the power to bring the past vividly to life. For the actors, teachers, and historians who work in the niche field known as “public history,” getting it right takes training, carefully-curated clothing, and a sense of humor amid a flurry of questions: Which way to the gift shop? Meet five Virginians who found their passion in a job they’d never imagined.

Valarie Gray-Holmes:

Angela at Historic Jamestowne

Growing up in New Jersey, Valarie Gray-Holmes never imagined becoming a living historian. “I came down to Virginia when I was in the Girl Scouts, but I’d never had the chance to go to Jamestown,” says the actor who now plays Angela, the first named African woman known to arrive in the New World. Angela came to Jamestown from Angola in 1619, one of the few survivors seized by English privateers from the slave ship San Juan Battista, which was bound for Mexico.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

“A lesser actor would not be capable of pulling this off,” says Mark Summers, director of Youth and Public Programs at Jamestown Rediscovery. In recounting Angela’s life, “she uses humor, faith, family, and the universality of the human experience.” 

In 1992, Gray-Holmes was living in Norfolk, when a friend in her acting troupe urged her to audition at Richmond’s Historic Tredegar Ironworks. “My stomach was just in knots,” she says. She conquered her nerves to land the role of Miss Clara Jackson, who sold sandwiches to the ironworkers during the Civil War. Once on the job, her natural rapport with guests impressed her supervisor, who recruited Gray-Holmes to join her when she moved on to Colonial Williamsburg.

There Gray-Holmes developed Soul of a Sharecropper, a program she performed at Carter’s Grove, part of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation until it was sold in 2008. She was acting and interpreting on a freelance basis in 2019, when Historic Jamestowne approached her to portray Angela. A 1625 colony census lists her only as “Angelo [sic], a Negro Woman” along with the notation that she lived in the household of Captain William Pierce. 

Gray-Holmes pieced together Angela’s life with research support from Willie Balderson, Jamestown Rediscovery’s director of Living History and Historic Trades. She also worked with the property’s archeologists, who were unearthing objects that Angela might have used on a daily basis from the Pierce property as recently as 2019. 

“When I started researching her, I read and read about Jamestown until I realized that I will never find Angela’s story in those books,” says Gray-Holmes, “because Angela’s story did not start with Jamestown. It started in Angola. To tell the story of where she came from, that was the nugget that I needed.” 

Kody Grant:

Colonial Williamsburg’s Cherokee War Chief

The tailor shop at Colonial Williamsburg is busy getting Kody Grant outfitted in a chief’s coat and shirt for his new role as Oconostota. Known for his negotiating skills, the Cherokee’s elected War Chief led a delegation to Williamsburg in 1777 to discuss relations with the newly formed Commonwealth. To complete his look, says Grant, “the blacksmiths and gunsmiths are collaborating on making a pipe tomahawk, which will be engraved by the staff engravers,” he says. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Tapped for the role in March, Grant looks forward to test-driving his new ensemble around Williamsburg, where it’s not uncommon to see interpreters grabbing lunch at the local Food Lion, dressed in full costume. If his look draws comments, he’ll see it as an opportunity, “to humanize the Native people,” he says.

His interest in his own heritage was piqued at 16, when he joined an Eagle Dance—its first performance in 200 years—at the reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina. “From there,” he says, “I sort of fell into it.” Descended from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Grant is also a member of New Mexico’s Pueblo of Isleta. 

Cast in an outdoor drama in North Carolina, Grant’s natural charisma caught the attention of recruiters from Colonial Williamsburg, where he’s worked as an interpreter since 2015. To play Oconostota, he’ll draw on years of research on “the economic situation, the political situation of the government systems, and family structures,” to fully embody the man the French honored with the title of captain in 1761 for his role in the French and Indian War.

“We have to provide references and the factual basis for the information we present,” Grant says. “Luckily, Colonial Williamsburg has a wealth of resources available to do this—with a historian team and library staff, along with share programs with other museums and universities.”

When his performances began this fall, Kody Grant’s Oconostota joined 12 key historical figures at Colonial Williamsburg. Known as the site’s Nation Builders, they include Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Martha and George Washington—and now this revered Indian war chief.

William Barker:

Monticello’s Thomas Jefferson

“Has anyone told you, you look like Thomas Jefferson?” William Barker’s double life as the third president began when a friend asked him that simple question. His friend, a teacher, moonlighting as Willam Penn in Philadelphia school programs, had spotted a new recruit. Tall, with a mop of red hair, Barker did look Jeffersonian. So after some arm twisting, he agreed to pose in costume for photos at the Liberty Bell. “And that’s where it started,” he says. 

Photo courtesy of Monticello

But there’s more to playing a founding father than kitting out in 18th-century clothing like a mascot. Fortunately, Barker was also a scholar, intimately familiar with Jefferson’s life. He’d once been sacked from a store clerk job for reading TJ’s biography on duty. And as an actor, Barker possessed the dramatic chops to deliver the President’s words convincingly. 

Within a few years, he was recruited by Colonial Williamsburg where he served as the preeminent “Jefferson” for 26 years. He might still be there, strolling past horse-drawn carriages and chatting up tourists, if he wasn’t such a stickler for accuracy.

“​​Jefferson left Williamsburg when he was 37,” Barker says. So in 2019, he decided it was time to move on. Rather than pack up his breeches for good, he headed to Monticello, where an older Jefferson was needed. It was the perfect final act for this faux founding father.

“The marvelous thing I think historical interpretation allows is context. It pulls you in,” says Barker. “It brings the past to life.” Today, Barker gives 20-minute talks at the mountaintop estate, fielding questions on topics like voting, state’s rights, and the presidency. He answers them as he believes Jefferson would have, eliciting uproarious applause in return.

Justin Cherry:

Mount Vernon’s Resident Baker

With his traveling clay oven, Justin Cherry offers visitors a taste of the 18th century. A lifelong history fanatic, Cherry enjoyed Revolutionary and French and Indian War reenactments as a child. But when his culinary career led him to Charleston’s Husk restaurant under James Beard award-winning chef Sean Brock, his love of history and food collided. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

The restaurant’s emphasis on historic grains inspired Cherry to build an historically accurate clay oven on wheels. He named it Half Crowne Bakehouse, after the price of a loaf of bread in 1749 Charleston.

He launched his period bakery at farmers markets and reenactments. But when Mount Vernon offered the chef a fellowship to study Colonial foodways, he couldn’t resist. With a cookbook in the works, Cherry is committed to preserving Colonial culinary history. 

Today, as Mount Vernon’s resident baker, Cherry offers a menu of warm bread made from period-correct grains served with clothbound cheese, smokehouse bacon, or slathered with salt pork butter. “People, ask ‘why $8? It’s just a slice of bread.’ I’m like, no, it’s really not.”

Consider that Cherry’s oven—an 18th-century Georgia model—takes about four hours to preheat and produces only 75 loaves in eight hours. The mixing, kneading, proofing, and baking is done by hand, as it was 270 years ago.

 And the gig isn’t without danger. Cherry once set a handful of flour sacks on fire when the wind blew over the candle he uses to see at night. “At 9:30 people showed up to buy bread, asking ‘How was your night?’ It was a good lesson in modern conveniences, like electricity.” 

Cherry also shares lessons about the first President. “I like to tell the stories of bakers that Washington worked with through his mill,” he says. “We know he worked with bakeries in Alexandria and Norfolk. And during the Revolutionary War, he worked with the superintendent of bakers, Christopher Lee.” 

John Pagano:

Early Virginian, Henricus Historical Park

To get to work each day, John Pagano puts on a plumed hat and baggy breeches to travel some 400 years to 1611. At Henricus Historical Park, the site of the second successful English settlement in the New World, he sweeps visitors into an emerging Virginia as it stood at an historic crossroads.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Now, as the park’s interpretation supervisor, Pagano traces his own love of history to a fourth grade field trip. “There was an interpreter there named Sheldon,” he says of the historic site in Cornwall, New York. “He had a ponytail and wore breeches and, when he talked to our group by the hearth,” Pagano recalls, “I looked at him and thought ‘That’s really cool.’”

So cool that Pagano, a sports-minded kid, started incorporating history into his life. “I wore a Civil War kepi hat on my dirt bike.” At 15, he helped his uncle frame houses all summer to save the money to buy a Civil War kit of the 124th New York Infantry Regiment, the unit that inspired Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.

After college, Pagano worked as a special education teacher, but it wasn’t long before the past lured him in again. An opportunity at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg led to roles at Savannah’s Old Fort Jackson and Historic Jamestowne. “The history-gypsy life,” he calls it. “That experience, being immersed in the 17th century, is the only reason I had a chance to get where I am now.”

At Henricus, he captivates visitors, telling the stories that led to Virginia’s birth. “I call it the Disney effect,” he says. “Kids won’t listen to a guy in a polo shirt with a name tag,” he says. “But when somebody is wearing period clothes, they’re hooked. I think that magic is a winning formula, and it still holds true, just as it did for me when I was in fourth grade.” 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere
Sidebar: Founding Fashions

For even the most resourceful historic interpreter, sourcing 17th- and 18th-century clothing is no small feat. Fortunately, sites like Colonial Williamsburg have teams on hand, who create the breeches, waistcoats, and ball gowns of the era with painstaking historic accuracy.

Some wardrobe items are made by the site’s historic tailors, milliners, and shoemakers, but the vast majority of interpreters’ clothing is stitched together at the Foundation’s Costume and Design Center. “We are not making costumes here,” says Mathew Gnagy, the Center’s manager. “We are clothiers. Each person has to look like an individual, not like a cast whose clothes all came from the same closet.”

Although all costumes belong to the site, Colonial Williamsburg made a rare exception when they presented Bill Barker with his Thomas Jefferson costume upon his retirement from the role there. At Monticello, Barker says he provides his own costumes, some of which date back 40 years. Of the costumes gifted him by Colonial Williamsburg he says, “I’ve continued to have them tailored while I’ve been on The Mountain.

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue.

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