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Historic Natchez Tableaux to unveil new stories

NATCHEZ — A decades-old Natchez tradition will undergo perhaps its most significant transformation this spring when the hoop starts twirling.

With declining attendance in recent years, the sponsors decided to update and enhance the Historic Natchez Tableaux — once called the Historic Natchez Pageant and before that the Confederate Pageant — with dramatic changes, by selecting a director with Broadway experience and making the tableaux more accessible to Natchez’s diverse population.

Layne Taylor, Natchez Little Theatre artistic and executive director, will direct the tableaux this year.

“I’m so excited,” Taylor said. “I have been coming to the tableaux since 1979 when my sister-in-law was named queen of the garden club.”

Under Taylor’s direction, the show will be more dynamic with speaking parts and voice-overs, he said. Members of the garden clubs will welcome guests at the start and speak to close the tableaux. The placard bearers will still be a part of the show, introducing various scenes, but directors have worked hard to ensure a more chronological order, organizers said.

One of the biggest changes, and why Taylor and the garden clubs are most proud, is the inclusion of local African American history.

“This is our way of including the diversity of Natchez and Southwest Mississippi in general,” said Marsha Colson, president of the Pilgrimage Garden Club. “Black history is a very prominent part of our heritage here. The issue has been danced around long enough, and it’s well past time to bring the tableaux into the 21st century where it belongs.”

The history of Natchez Indians will also be presented.

“The tableaux will be enhanced from an entertainment point of view, and we will do a better job explaining how our history developed and what the various elements mean to us,” Colson said.

Colson noted that the life of Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Howell, will be explored. She was a woman beyond her years as she was opposed to war and slavery, and educated slaves, which was illegal at the time, Colson said.

The story of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a local woman, born a slave who had an extraordinary singing talent, will be included in the new tableaux. Greenfield’s mistress freed her so Greenfield could pursue her talent, and eventually she had a successful career.

Traditionally, the tableaux ended on the scene featuring the Confederate flag.

“A few years ago people took issue with that,” Colson said. “The flag has become a contested, emotional and highly-charged symbol. We want this performance to be something that everyone can enjoy, learn from and be entertained by, not to be made to feel uncomfortable in any way.”

Colson acknowledged that emotions over the flag go both ways, as some see it as a symbol of oppression and others as an emblem of their heritage. So this year, in accordance with historical accuracy, the flag tableau will feature the original flag of the Confederacy that depicts a blue square with seven stars.

“This is our way of including the diversity of Natchez and the history of Southwest Mississippi and Southeast Louisiana,” Taylor said.

The Pilgrimage Garden Club and Natchez Garden Club sponsor the volunteer-based tableaux every year.

“I feel so fortunate to work with Marsha Colson and Cheryl Rinehart (president of the Natchez Garden Club),” Taylor said. “These are two well-educated women who are thoughtful and passionate about Natchez history, and they want to represent all of Natchez.”

Colson said the local garden clubs are preservation organizations, and proceeds from the tableaux go toward preserving and maintaining historic houses and grounds, and to educate the public on preservation and beautification.

Colson said the garden clubs chose Taylor to direct the tableaux because of his enthusiasm and catalog of professional experience.

“We want to appeal more to Natchez folks as well as tourists,” Taylor said. “We can do this by showing off the talent of Natchez, making it more theatrical and keeping something constantly happening on stage.

“With Natchez Garden Club member Beth Boggess’ passion for acting and history, she has researched and vastly improved the scripts for the play,” Taylor said.

Tableaux were a popular form of entertainment around the time Spring Pilgrimage began in 1932. A tableaux is made up of several tableau, or living pictures. The annual pageant has been a part of Spring Pilgrimage since the 30s.

“It was popular because it’s like a famous painting with real people, and that was our form of entertainment back then,” Taylor said. “Now we are a little more spoiled, so the popularity of tableaux waned. People want to see action.”

The new tableaux will be an evening of entertainment, and it’s also a wonderful history lesson, only a little more correct, Taylor said.

“And the audience has changed,” Taylor said. “They expect a little more as they are well educated, well traveled and sophisticated.”

But in the end, Taylor said the show is really about the community.

“Basically, this is a showcase for wonderful Natchez talent of the very young to the very old,” Taylor said. “I am so pleased to be a part of it and the wonderful changes that are taking place.”

According to Colson, inclusiveness for the participants and the community is the key to change this year.

“No matter what your product is, you have to update it periodically,” Colson said.

“This is not just about entertainment. For people in this community, it’s a big part of our social life, especially for participants.”

Colson said 400 volunteers have worked hard to make it a great tableaux.

“I feel good about what we’re doing,” Colson said.

Rinehart said she grew up participating in the annual tableaux and loves and understands its traditions.

“I see all sides as a participant, director and the business end of it, too,” Rinehart said. “It’s part of our tradition, so we want the tableaux to be as precise and exact as possible. We all jump through hoops to create that. I think it works, and the changes this year will make it work better.”

The Historic Natchez Tableaux’s Scenes of Natchez Past will be 8 p.m. March 11 through April 9 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the Natchez City Auditorium.

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