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Changes make Tableaux more appealing, participants say

NATCHEZ — When attendees to the nearly 80-year-old Historic Natchez Tableaux began offering constructive criticism, organizers listened.

Now, with the changes on display four nights a week, those in attendance are sharing positive feedback.

First-time tableaux director and Natchez Little Theatre Director Layne Taylor said the history in the tableaux was very outdated and needed to be overhauled.

The new changes to the script have rewritten the tableaux to be more historically accurate, featuring nine separate scenes from history, that focus more on Natchez’s true history, Taylor said.

The Natchez Indians and African American roles are explored in greater depth, and the addition of speaking parts and voice-overs has the 2011 tableaux crew working harder than it ever has to give residents and tourists a true depiction of life in Natchez over the years.

With just more than a week of performances under their belt, the 2011 tableaux crew has started to hit their stride in their performances and the many changes to the tableaux have gone over well, those involved said.

“The Natchez (City Auditorium) holds around 1,000 people, and we have been way over 50 percent capacity every night” Taylor said. “This is one of the best pilgrimages I can remember in several years.”

He said the new changes to the tableaux have really helped get the crowd more involved in what they are watching.

“What we wanted to do was have each tableaux come to life and tell the story that is taking place in each scene,” he said.

The first and newest scene of the tableaux is the feature on the Natchez Indians.

Natchez resident Melanie Sojourner plays the character “Woman Chief” and said the tableaux offers a new experience for those in attendance.

“We are just happy to provide more history to the story,” she said. “We have been doing everything the same for so long, and now with the changes you can tell people are getting more into it.”

Baton Rouge resident and 8-year tableaux attendee Richard Trule said he was glad to see the addition.

“Before, it almost felt like people were trying to skip over their role,” he said. “Native Americans played a role in history all over the country, and was nice to finally see history of the first people who were in Natchez.”

Pilgrimage Garden Club President Marsha Colson said it was constructive criticism like that of Trule’s that helped make the changes to the tableaux.

“We wanted to be more historically accurate because that is what people were asking for,” she said. “Everything has gone over well so far, and we are happy for that.”

One addition to the role African Americans played was the inclusion of the story of Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, a local woman, born a slave who had an extraordinary singing talent.

Greenfield was freed and adopted by her mistress and then moved to England where she had a very successful singing career.

Featured in the Showboat Under-the-Hill tableaux, Greenfield is portrayed by Natchez resident Althea Shelton.

“I had never heard of her before I played her,” Shelton said. “She was an awesome singer, and she had such an interesting life experience.”

Shelton said while this was her first year in the tableaux, she was surprised at the way the audience and cast was taking to the performance.

“Everyone on the cast has just been so friendly and eager to work,” she said. “That has carried over to the audience. People just seem to enjoy it.”

Roxie resident Julie Groff said the cast’s attitude during the performance is what sold her on the show.

“I have seen this two other times (in previous years), and the atmosphere just felt outdated,” she said. “People looked like they were going through the motions, but this year they were having fun. If the actors are having fun, it’s easier for the crowd to have fun.”

Groff said the attitude from the participants was helped by the addition of the speaking parts in the play.

“It was something I had always wanted from the tableaux,” she said. “It gave the characters more life and emotion. It made it easier to get involved in the program.”

Tableaux placard bearer 12-year-old Marli Vaughan said compared to her previous years in the tableaux, the speaking parts have given the program an added flair.

“People have more of an idea of what Natchez history is,” she said. “People have been taking it very well.”

With the addition of speaking parts, does come the added work of learning lines, something Raising of the Flag chairman Amy Marchbanks said was a bit of a challenge.

“Anytime you have to learn lines instead of not having any, things are going to be harder,” she said.

Showboat tableaux chairman Genny Harrison said since the tableaux features local Natchez talent, most of the performers are not serious actors.

“Many of these people are anxious when they are on stage with their lines,” she said. “But they have delivered on them so far, and we have had no complaints. This is a community-wide effort and it is providing a wonderful venue for Natchez.”

Harrison said the addition of speaking parts has made the overall tableaux experience more unique.

“It just adds so much to have people playing characters and giving actual lines instead of someone sitting there reading to you,” she said.

Eagle Warrior Dancer, 15-year-old Rudy Timm said the new lines have helped the cast come together to form a more entertaining tableaux.

“It used to feel like it was all about tradition, and it was hard to get in to,” he said. “Now it just feels like people are excited about it.”

With another three weeks of performances left, Colson said things are looking up for the tableaux.

“This is the best pilgrimage we have had in four years,” she said. “This tableaux has been something new and different for us to talk about, and it has helped us sell pilgrimage.”

The Historic Natchez Tableaux starts at 8 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays through April 9 at the Natchez City Auditorium.

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