By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Making Oregon Trail history come alive might be a challenge for a man whos more at home in Colonial Williamsburg and Monticello, but storyteller Dylan Pritchett carries off the task with innovation, wit and a good deal of humor.
Pritchett, a professional storyteller and educator who pronounces his first name DIE-lan, completes his run at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center Friday and Saturday with performances in the Leo Adler Theater at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. His character, Louis, a freed slave, tells of the travails of establishing a new life in Oregon Territory in 1859.
To accomplish his task, Pritchett relies heavily on audience participation. Before a performance this week, he acknowledged with a wink, People out there will help me more than they think.
What kind of work do you do? You look kind of prosperous, he says to a man.
When one audience member says hes a computer scientist and another a fire chief, he asks, incredulously, Anybody out here do an honest days work?
Louis tells the crowd that laws enacted during the 1840s and 1850s have kept the Negro population down to about 150 in Oregon Territory. Most have settled in the Portland area, where, he notes with wide eyes, there are two Negro churches.
But around here there are more buffaloes than Negroes, he says. I should have moved on a little further. But I aint begging for nothing. I aint asking for anything that nobody else is getting. I have dreams just like anybody else.
It turns out Louis befriended Indians on his way out to Oregon from Kentucky, where hed served his master.
Indians is good people, he says. Yall remember Lewis and Clark put their Negro, York, out front to deal with the Indians, and I did the same thing.
Aint this their land were going across? We ought to ask people for what we want before we take it. Youve got to treat people like folks.
And that is exactly what Pritchett manages to do during his performance. When audience members cant figure out the lesson behind one of his stories, he playfully shakes a stick at them literally. When another audience cant supply details of Nat Turners 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Va., he tells them another story, then asks for the moral.
When an answer isnt immediately forthcoming, he breaks into a broad grin. Yall cant mess this one up, he says. Its what you think.
Dressed in his simple costume, Louis doesnt appear especially wise. But dont be fooled.
Im smarter than yall think I am, he says. It dont come from reading, but from listening. You can learn a lot just by listening.
Thats Louis talking, of course, but Pritchett himself has learned by interacting with crowds of tourists since he was an 11-year-old boy. He started performing with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as a fifer in the fife-and-drum corps, was named a drum major and later African-American programs specialist.
When he works at Thomas Jeffersons home, Monticello, he tries to show people how the real Jefferson lived.
The real Jefferson dumped a bucket of water on his head every morning and called that a shower, he said. The real Jefferson had a magnificent garden, but ate only the peas. The rest was an experiment that he always let go to seed. He bought his vegetables from his slaves.
For the past seven years, Pritchett has led workshops at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, teaching teachers how to use storytelling in the classroom. He has also served as performer and consultant for a number of television programs, including PBS recent Jefferson biography, View From the Mountain Top.
This history stuff is as much a part of Dylan as I am, he says before a performance. Not too many former slaves can say that.
For more information on coming events at the Interpretive Center, call 523-1843.