Thursday, April 19, 2018
Education

Actors bring Florida history-makers to life

TAMPA — Pedro Menéndez de Avilés stands defiantly, detailing the execution of scores of captured French soldiers.

"One hundred-eighty throats were cut that day by me and my men,'' he says, almost boastfully.

"Three were spared. They renounced their sins of heresy. And 12 were immediately forgiven their sins. They were musicians. I like music.''

The 16th century founder of the city of St. Augustine may not have been the most savory soul, but he makes the roster of "Dreamers & Schemers'' — great Floridians — presented in a traveling show put on by the Florida Humanities Council.

A free show featuring some of the other history-makers comes to [email protected] in St. Petersburg on Thursday evening. A troupe is expected to perform in Tampa in late summer or early fall.

Menéndez de Avilés is brought to life by Chaz Mena, one of the actors taking part in this Viva Florida 500 celebration, commemorating the half-millennium anniversary of the Spanish arrival in what they named La Florida. Mena also portrays the Seminole leader Osceola.

Other actors play early cattleman Jacob Summerlin, folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, writer and Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas; early 20th century Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward; railroad baron Henry Flagler; and black military leader Francisco Menendez, who fought for the Spanish in the 1700s.

Broward, Summerlin and Hurston will be featured in the [email protected] show. Singer and songwriter Sam Pacetti also performs.

Mena, a New York-based actor, delivered the conquistador's monologue during a dress rehearsal in January on the stage of Centro Asturiano in Ybor City. He draws much of his characterization directly from a two-volume set of letters between Menéndez de Avilés and King Philip II of Spain.

"The letters are in-your-face, because it was a different time,'' Mena says.

He reminds the audience of that in his presentation: "Judge me as you will. But take heed, for even as you judge men of other eras, so you will be judged in yours."

Ersula Knox Odom, of Tampa, plays Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman as a school for African-American girls and built it into a university. Odom admires Bethune's "historical presence,'' she says, noting that the woman was unstoppable.

"If something needed to be done, she did it. If something needed to be said, she said it.''

Betty Jean Steinshouer, who has portrayed Willa Cather, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, plays Douglas, author of The Everglades: River of Grass. A full-time portrayer of historical women for educational forums, Steinshouer, like the others, researches the characters in depth. During her sojourn through Douglas' life, she found it interesting to see the writer evolve into an icon.

"She wrote the Everglades book much as any other writer did, for money," said Steinshouer, of St. Petersburg.

She handed a copy to President Harry Truman in 1947, when he dedicated Everglades National Park. "Between then and 1969, when she formed Friends of the Everglades, she became an environmentalist. She had not been an environmentalist when she wrote the book, and most people don't know that.''

One of the toughest parts of building the character for an audience is choosing the details to present, she says.

"It's tempting to put way too much of the material in because it's all new,'' she says, "and you always love to give the audience something new.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.

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