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Towson costumer passes on her passion for history to her students

Nora Worthington, the resident costumer for the Baltimore School for the Arts, has long loved the idea of dressing up and living the past. As a sixth-grader, she starred in Hampton Elementary School's Bicentennial production, and she visited her two grandmothers who had houses overflowing with antiques.

"When people say history is boring and dull, I think that's a shame," said the Towson resident.

Worthington forged a partnership several years ago to mount student theatrical productions "about the lives of people the history books left out," she said. "It's deceptive to get lost in dates and battles without the stories behind them."

The partners now include the Maryland Historical Society, which not coincidently has a student research center; the National Park Service folks at the Ft. McHenry and Hampton historic sites; School for the Arts; and Wells Fargo, which has been underwriting the productions with an annual $10,000 grant.

"It's the way it's being taught. There are so many creative ways to engage with the past. It's our duty to find them," she said.

Worthington, who has been married to Paul Christensen, head of stage production and design at School for the Arts, for 11 years, requires her students to do in-depth research before they tackle any design. 

"So much of what you do in costume design is to use detail to help the audience know who the characters are," she said.

"Some characters in the scenes are not really sympathetic, but every character has valid viewpoint," Worthington said. "That's dicey stuff when you are 15 or 16 years old. You're very literal. You want people to be good or bad, but people are more complicated than that. 

"We are educating citizens. It's unproductive to categorize people so sharply that you can't empathize with them."

Worthington was the playwright for the most recent production, which was offered at Hampton Mansion last month and earlier this month. It showcased School for the Arts students acting in four scenes which illustrate the human side of the Civil War and involved freedom, slavery, divided families as well as divided loyalties.

"The performance gave Hampton a vibrancy that otherwise wouldn't be there," said Ranger Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation for the Hampton and Ft. McHenry sites. "The cast was young and enthusiastic. They put life into the place. We have important historical buildings, but the people are obviously long gone. They bring the people back.

"Since they're young, other young people will connect with them, and when they all grow up they will bring their children to these places. This kind of thing gets them interested, not only those who come to watch, but the performers too."

Indeed, said Worthington, her charges uncover fascinating stories about the everyday people. For example, slave Lucy Johnson was purchased by the Ridgely family in 1838. She fled the estate in 1862, well before emancipation. However, after the war was over in 1866, she engaged a Washington lawyer to threaten suit if the Ridgelys didn't return the property she had left behind that had been given to her by her  husband, who had not been a slave.

The long list of costumes included 21 dresses, six of them silk, six pairs of white lace sleeves as well as furs and muffs.

The Emancipation Proclamation came out in January of 1863, but it applied only to slaves in the rebel states, not Maryland, Worthington said. "It was a border state stuck in the middle."

On April 25, 1864, a slave living in Bel Air named Annie Davis wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln, seeking his advice. It was her desire to be free to go to see her people on the Eastern Shore, she said, but her mistress wouldn't let her. "Please let me know if we are free … this week or as soon as possible."

"I have to say that after the students were instructed to handle materials very carefully, they were given unprecedented access to primary sources — the real artifacts and documents. It was really powerful," Worthington said. 

As one student held a diary written in Baltimore County during the war, she saw there was a gap between entries explained by, "so many awful things have happened that I could hardly write ... ." 

She realized what appeared to be watermarks on the page were tear stains.

"That's not something you are going to get online when you are 15 or 16 and trying to understand the war," Worthington said. 

"I learned so much working with the students. I see myself as the lead learner. I want to give them the skills to discover.

"It really matters when talking about the Civil War and states rights — it's very current. It's gay marriage and health care. The idea that all history is in the past is what keeps it from being interesting. It relates to where and how we are now."

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