By SHERIDAN CYR
Gwendolyn Quezaire-Presutti, a living history artist, told the tale of Oney Judge Staines, one of George Washington’s slaves who escaped the Executive Mansion in Philidelphia in 1796 and fled to New Hampshire.
In a one-woman performance, Quezaire-Presutti had the audience at the Plainville Senior Center captivated and fascinated by the untapped history.
“She had the courage to claim her own freedom, even if it meant defying the president of the United States,” said Quezaire-Presutti. The performance begins with Staines, answering the door to a reporter in 1845 at her home in New Hampshire. The reporter wants to hear the story of her escape from the Washingtons many years ago.
Through her own research and diligence, Quezaire-Presutti crafts her own scripts to tell the tales of history that didn’t make it into most history books. She performs solo, speaks in first person and stays in character throughout each presentation.
Quezaire-Presutti attended the University of Wisconsin majoring in business, when she took a history course with Professor Lloyd Barbee and had a change of heart. She worked for 30 years in social welfare, but never lost her interest in history.
“My eyes were opened to an untapped history of America,” she said. In 1997, she “reinvented herself,” and began her second career training in living history with the Tejas Storytelling Association of San Antonio, Texas.
“I love sharing information, and to have an audience member come to me after a presentation and say, ‘I never knew that,’” said Quezaire-Presutti.
The packed room of Senior Center members watched intently as the artist told the story of Staines’ life story.
Ronda Guberman, assistant director at the Senior Center, explained members were excited for the event.
“Someone had asked about programs for Black History Month, and we found Gwendolyn through the Connecticut Association of Senior Center Personnel,” Guberman said. “This story seemed to be one of interest.”
At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people. Staines’ character said, “Not until he died did I feel free.”
Quezaire-Presutti also performs as other characters including: the first female millionaire in America, Madam C.J. Walker; American novelist, short story writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston; escaped slave Harriet Tubman who was enlisted as a scout and spy for the Union during the Civil War; and others.
She has received several awards and recognitions for her solo performances as a living history artist including but not limited to an Alliance Award and an Award of Excellence at the Institute of Texan Cultures, a certificate of merit from the Office of the Secretary of the State of Connecticut, a certificate from the Connecticut Arts for Learning Signature Core Services, and was crowned as Miss Senior Connecticut in 2010. She is also a proud grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of four children.