“The cemetery’s a lively place, isn’t it?”
That’s the question high school student West Givens will ask visitors at Friendship Cemetery during Pilgrimage this year, and he’d be correct. Givens is just one of many students who bring long-departed Columbus residents to life during Tales of the Crypt.
Over the last 25 years, Tales of the Crypt has become a local tradition during the Columbus Pilgrimage. Juniors from Mississippi School for Math and Science dress up as actual 19th-century Columbus residents and perform monologues for visitors taking a guided tour throughout the cemetery.
Students play Civil War soldiers, freed slaves, devoted wives, unmarried school teachers and more. Each one gives a lively account of their characters’ lives. All of the students involved are from MSMS history teacher Chuck Yarborough’s U.S. History class. The students who do not perform are narrators who guide visitors along the tours.
“It truly allows the student to make history come to life, and they make history come to life for the entire community,” Yarborough said.
Each year is unique, Yarborough said. No two students have researched the same people, so their research and performances have always been entirely their own. Visitors see different performances each year.
A year-long project
But visitors at Tales of the Crypt only see the final part of a year-long project Yarborough’s students work on that requires students to do much more than perform a monologue.
In August, 68 students each pick a name from a list of people buried in Friendship Cemetery who died prior to 1930, Yarborough said. The students then research the person’s life using primary source documents. The point of the project is to have students use the documents to put together the story of their chosen character’s life.
Givens is one of the last performers on the tour. He has always loved history and performing, but when he chose William Wiltshire Whitfield to research and eventually perform, he knew nothing about his chosen character.
“I chose my guy off the fact that he has three Ws in his name and my name starts with a W,” Givens said.
Still as he dove into the research, he was excited to find that his character was one of the few Columbus residents chosen who not only survived fighting in the Civil War but who survived the entire nineteenth century. Many of the figures students researched died during or shortly after the war. Givens was surprised to learn that Whitfield lived past his 80th birthday.
During their first semester, the students write a paper based on their research. In January, the performance aspect of the project begins. Each student writes their own monologue from the point of view either of the person they researched or of someone who knew that person. They perform their monologues at auditions, and the best performances become part of Tales of the Crypt during Pilgrimage every spring.
A group effort
Each student has a production team, according to Givens. Five students help one performer edit the monologue and work out costumes and whatever else goes into the performance.
Sasha Edwards, a student from Senatobia, is the head narrator. Her job is to make sure the performers have everything they need and that each narrator knows where to go and what to do. Each night before Tales of the Crypt starts, she will make sure there are two narrators for every tour group and that narrators lead the groups with their own parents in them. Still, her favorite part of the project was the research.
“It helped us expand our minds on what the history of this town really is,” she said.
The project has received national attention and won several awards, including an award for Distinguished Historic Preservation from the Mississippi Heritage Trust and the 2005 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. It was also a national finalist for the History Channel’s Save Our Classroom Award in 2005, according to Yarborough.
The project is important because it teaches students not just how to do research, but how to draw conclusions from that research, Yarborough said.
“And that, my friend, is true scholarship,” he added.
Tales from the Crypt will be from 7 to 10 p.m. on April 8, 10, 13, 15 and 17.
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