Spencer Downing: Historian in a one-act play

Historians in the News

Spencer Downing has a tale to tell, and he lands some big laughs along the way. Using very minimal costuming –- "layering" might be a better word -- an overhead projector and a series of hilarious hand-drawn transparencies, he tells the story of being one of the first college grads chosen for Teach for America, a Peace Corp-style program that asks participants to commit two years to teaching disadvantaged students across the U.S. Downing’s stint was in the early 1990s in a very rural, and racist, part of North Carolina.

From the start, the show struggles a little with tone -- the audience initially is lectured on its ignorance and insensitivity, but gradually you realize Downing is talking to himself. He comes across at times –- especially early on –- as superior and not that likable, but by the time he’s dirty dancing at the prom he has the audience howling (and I’m still chuckling at Alexis de Tocqueville’s sideburns from one early transparency).

Downing’s problem, and it’s a pretty significant one, is he doesn’t appear to be a trained actor or storyteller. (He’s a UCF history professor by day.) It would be interesting to see his writing in the hands of somebody who was.
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