For the 26th year, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science students will tell the tales of some of Columbus’ forgotten past.
Beginning next week, MSMS students in Chuck Yaborough’s junior U.S. history class will perform “Tales from the Crypt,” the culmination of a year-long research project into the lives of some of the people buried in historic Friendship Cemetery.
Tales from the Crypt will run 7-10 p.m. on March 30 and April 1, 4, 6 and 8. Guests tour the graveyard, led by MSMS students acting as narrators. The tour features several graveside stops along the way, where students act out short skits to personify people buried in the cemetery.
For the past four years, Tales from the Crypt has drawn 1,700 to 1,800 people.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students.
Yarborough said preparation for “Tales from the Crypt begins” in the summer, when he compiles a list of 109 people who have not yet been recognized through the annual program. Students pick names — bereft of any ranks or other titles — and begin a research project on their person. Each student then submits a paper to Yarborough in December.
When school resumes after the holidays, students pick an interesting story from their research papers and create a script for “Tales from the Crypt.” Yarborough said 67 students auditioned for roles. The 10 best were selected to perform in “Tales from the Crypt” this year. The remaining students, he said, will work as part of production teams that help refine the script and prepare the presentation.
Yarborough said students have been practicing for two and a half months.
The nature of the annual event lends a personal touch to research. Yarborough said it leads students to think about their subjects and their place in history. For example, he said one student wanted to explore the thoughts of a man who freed his slaves, as well how the family and community would have perceived it.
This year’s subjects
This year, Yarbrough said “Tales from the Crypt” will feature a performance to honor Judy Morris, one of MSMS’ founding faculty members. He said Morris’ speech and debate students were the first to lead tours through Friendship Cemetery for “Tales from the Crypt.”
Dustin Dunaway, a student from Brookhaven, is performing in Morris’ memory from the perspective of Shannon Eubanks, a former student. He said Eubanks was his principal and so he wanted to use that connection as a different way to remember Morris.
The performance is new to Dunaway — he said he’s never acted before.
“I’ve done public speeches,” he said. “But it’s kind of weird doing the transitioning from portraying yourself and trying to get in the character of someone else.”
Ariel Williams, from Waynesboro, will perform as Frances Antoinette Swoope, the ex-wife of former Columbus mayor Richard Edward Moore.
Williams said Swoope was committed to an insane asylum after her baby died.
“She stayed there for about 20 years,” Williams said. “She went when she was about 28 and when she was 42, she was taken back to the house where she died of tuberculosis that she contracted in the asylum.”
Williams put on an emotional performance for a visiting missions group from Virginia who toured the cemetery during the students’ dress rehearsal on Wednesday.
She said she had to be emotional, not only to capture guests’ attention, but to honor Swoope’s memory.
“Mr. Yarborough tells us that we are the only people in the world who know as much about our families as we do,” Williams said. “We spend months researching, walking to the library and obtaining formation. I felt that if I did not get to portray how she felt I was doing her a disservice.”
“Tales from the Crypt” has garnered national attention. It has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” as well as in “The Atlantic” magazine. It won the 2014 Heritage Award for Preservation Education from the Mississippi Heritage Trust, the 2005 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and the 2009 Award for Outstanding Use of Historical Documents in the Mississippi K-12 Classroom.
Yarborough said the projects lessons go beyond the classroom — it thrusts some students into public speaking and performance roles for the first time, and teaches others how to work together to pull off a big project.
It also makes history just a little bit more relatable.
“One of the lessons they’re learning is our story — our community’s story, our state story, our national story — is the story of individuals just like you and I,” Yarborough said. “It really comes home for them, I think.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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