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Arts & Culture

Tammy Denease: Woman of Many Faces

For the past seven years, my friend Tammy Denease, the woman of many faces, developed several characters of women from the past. She grew up in a family with a rich background in performing, especially storytelling.  Her mom and dad were singers, but her grandparents were storytellers. In fact, it was quite a common occurrence for the family to get together and entertain each other with their very own stories, stories they made up, or re-created from day to day happenings. One of the family specialties was to take an exceptionally tragic event and retell it in a humorous way, not to make light of the situation, but to make the incident more palatable.

Tammy’s daughter Brianna is also cut from the storyteller’s cloth, as she has played in tandem with her mother as a youthful Bessie Coleman, to her mother’s more accomplished aviatrix. So, Tammy’s family has led the way for this actress to produce a plethora of alter egos, real people who were influential in their own time, and even more prominent, as Tammy breathes life into them now, during the twenty first century!

AK: How did you get into re-creating history?

TD:  Well I grew up with history. My great grandmother Miss Mary Baxter Johnson, she lived to be 125 years old. My grandmother Mary Spencer, she lived to be 100 and I spent a lot of hours with these women, and I just lived with living history and in school history was my favorite subject. In school when people do history, it seems boring because it deals with a lot of facts and numbers, but because I had these two lively women in my life, I always imagined what it was like to be in the time period when I was studying, so that’s one of the reasons why.

AK: Did you take any thing from their characters or their carriage that you brought into your storytelling, because that’s what this is, sounds like it’s storytelling?

TD: Actually it is storytelling and bringing history to life, and yes, each one of the women that I portray, I look for different characteristics in those women to bring my grandmother or great grandmother to life. I look, for instance, Elizabeth Keckly, she was a former slave who went on to be a businesswoman and that‘s exactly what my grandmother did. She went from being a slave, she bought her 40 acres, did not do the sharecropping. She bought her 40 acres, it took her two years to pay for it, but those 40 acres are still in our family today. So with Elizabeth Keckly she went from being a slave to being a well known sought after seamstress or mantua maker, and she was in the Lincoln White House. And so when I discovered Elizabeth Keckly, I was like, “That’s my great grandmother or Mudea,” cause we called her Mudea or Dea, I was like, “that’s her, I wanna bring her to life!” So I do look for those characteristics in the women.

AK: So you said Elizabeth Keckly was a seamstress or a mantua maker, what is that?

TD: A mantua maker, just like a designer, or specialist in designing clothes or, sort of like a “haute couture” person. She specialized in making certain clothing that other people could not make. So she made fancy ball gowns, she made fancy dresses, and most of the clothing that you see Mary Todd Lincoln in during the Lincoln White House.Most of those clothes you see, Elizabeth Keckly made.

AK: So, tell me exactly what it is that you do.

TD: What I do, is I bring African American women to life that are obscured through history, meaning, they were very prominent in our community, but we don’t hear a lot about them. Mainly society will only talk about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and what these women did was wonderful and never to take anything away from them, but I felt we needed to know more about those you know, you don’t hear about, but were very prominent and set great examples for our people of the time, as well as for today. So I get into period clothing from that time period and I become that person. I take you back in time, as if you were in my life at that time and you get to see what day to day was like for me as that particular individual.

AK: Exactly how do you do the research for materials for your characters?

TD: Well one thing I do is spend some time on the internet, but not so much, as the internet can be a little misleading. I spend a lot of time in libraries and I have my own personal library, I love books, everywhere I go I buy books. I do research not only through those books, but I also talk to experts who are people who have done their own research such as in the period clothing. I will talk to people who deal with cooking of the time period. I talk to people who are just good at what they do in the different time periods that I am trying to bring into my character. Then what I do is get together and I get as much information as I can, and I sit and I read and piece it together.  Then I put myself in, I put a little Tammy flavor in it. Then I just sit and rehearse it and I just try to imagine what it was like to have been in that individual’s place. Then I just take it from there. I just try to put myself there. I forget about Tammy Denease in the present and I become that person, Elizabeth Keckly in the 1860s or Mum Bett in the 1700s. So I put myself there and I become that person.

AK: How many characters do you present?

TD: I have about five characters that I do presently and I have about three more that are in pre production, if you will. I have clothing being made for these women, so it’s about five or six that I do right now.

AK: OK, talk to me about the characters that you actively present. Tell me a little bit about those characters as well as the ones you are about to present.

TD: The first person that I have ever re-enacted was Bessie Coleman. She was the world’s first Negro aviatrix. She received her pilot’s license in June of 1921, and she was actually two years before Amelia Earhart.  Because of racism and bigotry, she was not allowed to get her license here, so she went to Paris France. I am fascinated with her story because with the conditions and circumstances she was in at that time, she refused to give in. At that time she could have died for even thinking about having such a dream, let alone trying to pursue it. So she was the first woman that I brought to life. In my research I reached out to her family. That is a fascinating story I love to tell. Through my research I found out there was a Bessie Coleman library in Chicago. I called, to just leave my name and information, hoping the family would call me back. The young lady puts me on hold and then comes back. I am thinking it’s her and low and behold, it’s the niece of Miss Bessie Coleman, Miss Gigi Broom (seems like a great Hollywood name). Miss Broom’s mom was Marion Coleman, Bessie Coleman’s favorite niece. So I actually got to talk with a real family member and got their blessings to bring their aunt to life. I still talk with Miss Broom from time to time.  She was very excited that I was respectful enough to call and say, “this is what I would like to do, and is it ok?” She not only gave me her blessings, she also invited me to come out to Ohio when Miss Bessie was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame there.

AK: They seemed receptive about your research, and about you bringing their grand aunt to life. The United States Government seemed receptive when they created the Bessie Coleman stamp.

TD: Yes they were receptive and I do have the stamp. There is also a “vanity” street named after her leading to the O’Hare airport.

AK: Now why is it called a vanity street?

TD: I call it a vanity street because even though the street has it’s government name, in honor of someone (Bessie Smith), they will put a special tag under that and Bessie’s street is called Bessie Coleman Drive.

AK: sounds like a vanity plate on a car almost?

TD: Yes exactly, except it’s on a street!

AK: Who else you got up your sleeve?

TD: Miss Elizabeth Keckly, she was formerly enslaved and bought her and her son’s freedom for $ 1,200 and that was a lot of money back then. In today’s currency that would be about $26,000, that was a lot of money. Not only was she able to borrow from her different clients through her sewing, but she paid that money back within five years. Her dream was to be a seamstress and to work at the White House. Through different obstacles and trials, not only did she get to go and work at the White House, she befriended Mary Todd Lincoln when others wouldn’t go near her. She also opened up her business and taught others how to sew as well. I like her story because of her quiet dignity. When you read her story you see that she is reserved but at the same time you can feel that quiet strength and dignity within her. That’s why I pursued Miss Elizabeth Keckly.

AK: Was she educated?

TD: She was an educated woman, but she wasn’t as educated as she would have liked to have been. Her Papa George, who was owned by a neighbor, would always tell her when they got to visit, for her to learn her sums and letters, to learn her alphabet. She said in her autobiography that she was educated, but she would have like to be much better educated.

Then there is Miss Sarah Margru Kinson Green of the Amistad. I am fascinated with Ms. Margru, because on the Amistad, people did realize there were four children.

AK: That was a slavery schooner?

YD: Yes that was a schooner that was used for slavery, yes, and aboard that schooner there were the four children and Margru would survive this and she would go on to be the first African to graduate from college in this country. She wasn’t the first to go to college, but she was the first to graduate from Oberlin Collegic in Ohio. Her story is worth telling because she was between the ages of seven and eleven when she was captured, and when I tell her story, I tell her story from a positive point of view of being in Africa with a loving mother and father and siblings, and how they were hard workers and a proud people. She was snatched from what was most familiar, she was brought to a strange land, and she was educated according to the western world. As she grew up she was torn between what she knew she should have become verses what she became, because of the circumstances that she found herself in.

AK: Who else do you present?

TD: Miss Clo Pratt, she is from Wethersfield, Connecticut. She is my Colonial woman. She was here when George Washington was in Wethersfield for five days and four nights in May of 1781. I tell her story from the point of view that shows the diversity in the culture in the Connecticut colony at that time, as well as the excitement that was created when General Washington was here.

Then there is my newest baby, Elizabeth Mum Bett Freeman, known as Mum Bett, out of the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I tell people all the time, if I had to be a slave, I would have been Mum Bett. Mum Bett is very well known in the Berkshires. Although she was enslaved, she was very well respected. She was, if you will, someone to be reckoned with. She did not believe in injustice, she would actually challenge her mistress and that garnered her respect. In fact, when she would over hear her master Mr. Sedgwick speak of freedom, she would wonder why she could not get her own freedom. She would go on and pursue her freedom, using the legal system. She was the first slave in Massachusetts who achieved her freedom using the law. She later went on to buy land. She was also known as a healer and a midwife who was known to have delivered eighty percent of the babies in her area.

AK: How and where do you find the costumes for your characters? You can’t just go to the mall right?

TD: In regards to the period clothing, I have several books that I go through and some websites where I found a specialist, Maureen Leavenworth in Cape Cod.

AK: So you travel?

TD: Yes and the dress for Elizabeth Keckly  (seen on the set in video, as well as in the slide show) was in a shop for three years and the shop owner could not sell the dress, so I believe the dress was destined for me, waiting for me. Maureen is my resource for my Colonial clothing. She knows what she is doing and is well known. She is my mantua maker, if you will. Doreen Demeyer is my Connecticut connection, and made my Sarah Margru outfit.

AK: These women study this?

TD: They study this, they actually go to trade shows; they perform sometimes. This is what they do; this is their life. In the case of Elizabeth Keckly, there are a number of books on her and the time, facts about her chatelaine (seen in video) are researched and accessible, and sometimes there is just a minute detail that makes the outfit.

AK: Now you used the term chatelaine, qu’est-ce que c’est, what is that?

TD:  It is a French term meaning “woman of the house.” In Elizabeth Keckley’s case she used it as a seamstress’ utility belt, carrying her scissors, needles and thread. But woman also wore it as an everyday accessory to clip their little purses, so when they were out in public they would have those things with them.

AK: gloves maybe?

TD: Yes gloves, that’s possible.

AK: Well not only do the characters come and find you, sounds like the clothes do too!  Who is your audience?

TD: Well my audience varies. It varies from schools, libraries, to corporations, to stages, to theaters, convention centers. I travel all over and I go wherever they call me. I basically try to make it family oriented. I stay away from religious or political organizations because I want to stay neutral, but basically anywhere someone wants to see the show. Now, the venue will determine how the show is performed. If it is all adults, then I can get a little more graphic with the slavery portrayal, telling the real truth about what went on without watering it down. But, if it is an audience of younger children, I don’t water the story down, but I tell them in a way that they are aware that something bad is happening, but it doesn’t give’ em nightmares. So, that is the balance that I do.

AK: So would you consider this is arts in education, you are a teacher?

TD: Oh most definitely, I am an artist of the Young Artists of Connecticut and they are very good at what they do. They believe in having arts in education.  They believe that we need the arts to help widen our children’s imagination, to help them to want to learn more, explore possibilities that they most likely never even think of.

AK: So again, you are teaching history, you are a teacher, an educator. Why do you do what you do?

TD: I love it! Simple put, I love it! I truly believe history needs to be told. I truly believe that we can learn from our history. When you bring history to life, and you help people to see that when you are reading about these people who have been gone for many, many moons, but yet and still their life was very similar to what we have today. They had the same struggles that we have today. They had to overcome different obstacles. They had to set goals and dreams for themselves. The reason that I get so passionate is that today we have come so far that there is no reason that we can’t set goals and dreams, and actually achieve them. That is one of the messages that I give to the children today. Especially when I do my project on Bessie Coleman. I help children understand that she grew up in the “Jim Crow” era, which means that there were laws that said that if you were other than white, you could be treated in a certain way, in a rude and disrespectful, and even, deadly manner. There were things such as lynchings and you were only supposed to pick cotton and do laundry. Bessie Coleman dared to dream. She knew that her dream could get her killed. She knew that wanting to be a pilot or to fly or being an aviatrix could literally get her killed. That was not going to stop her from setting that goal and soaring beyond the cotton fields. I tell our kids today, that if that woman could do that, at that time, there is nothing you cannot do today.

AK: That brings me to my final question. If you had a message to leave with students and all of your audience, what would that overwhelming message be?

TD: Dare to Dream. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something that you know you can do. I think the biggest obstacle we all have to overcome is self-doubt. Make a goal for your self and then set about achieving that goal. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. So, if you gotta go over, through, or around those obstacles, without hurting anyone, then that’s what you do!


Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, MA

Museum of Afro-American History, Boston, MA

Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth, NH

International Museum of Theater Alliance

   at the Philadelphia Convention Center

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA

Webb Deane Stevens Museum, Wethersfield, CT

Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, CT

Governor Jonathan Trumbull House, Trumbull, CT

Daughters of the American Revolution (regionally)

Arts & Culture historytheater

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