Being Tom Jefferson

C-VILLE cover story for the week of 6/19/2012. The version that appeared in print was edited down for size. Below is the longer, original version. 

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” – Thomas Jefferson

Stephen McDowell as Thomas Jefferson. Photo by John Robinson

For a few minutes before he goes on stage, assuming that there is a stage, Rob Coles sits quietly by himself and listens to the nervous static of the crowd. He’s dressed in typical 18th century clothes; breeches, a ruffled white shirt and embroidered waistcoat, a heavy greatcoat, and buckled shoes. Soon the introduction will come (it’s always the same intro, the familiar words helping get him into character) and he will walk onstage and do what he’s done for 36 of his 60 years, wearing the costume, pretending to be somebody else. The audience knows the truth, obviously, but they’re very willing to suspend their disbelief, because he looks like him and speaks like him and because they want to be entertained. The first five minutes are the most important, and he can feel it, he can feel the moment when they let go and buy into the fantasy. He is Thomas Jefferson, come from the dead, come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all. Read the rest of this entry »