It seems that some people were just born to play certain roles.
For Keith Henley, it is the role of a slave named Hercules, who was President George Washington’s master chef in New York and Philadelphia. Henley learned about Hercules through a friend who was involved in a planned building excavation of the president’s home that would include several re-enactors of prominent people in Washington’s household. Hercules was one of the roles that would need to be portrayed.
Prior to the conversation, Henley had no knowledge of Hercules, but immediately realized that he could portray the role.
“I can handle this and it would be a very easy person for me to study because we are both into the food thing,” said Henley who owns Queenie’s Homemade Sweets and Catering in Camden. “The more I read his story, the more excited I became thinking ‘oh yeah this is really going to work for me.'”
From the plaque outside the former president’s home and other research, Henley learned that Hercules was introduced to the art of cooking by his mother and was known for his tidy kitchen and immaculate food presentation. Unlike most slaves, he was viewed as a “gentleman” because of the life afforded him when he was allowed to sell the scraps of left-over food earning an additional $200 annually. He also walked freely in public, wearing lavish suits until his son was accused of stealing, which resulted in their return to the plantation. Both of the men were sent to work in the field, which led to Hercules’ escape on the President Washington’s 65th birthday.
Even though the building excavation never happened, Henley still decided to pursue the role with the American Historical Theatre, which is dedicated to educating, entertaining and inspiring history through first-person interpreters that encourage audience interaction with history. He has portrayed Hercules at various events for Historic Germantown including this year’s Juneteenth Festival. He also portrayed him at Peddler’s Village in New Hope Pennsylvania for “An Evening in the Colonial Kitchen”.
Through the portrayal of Hercules, Henley realized the painful reality that “ignorance is bliss” noting that a lot of people prefer not to acknowledge that slavery actually took place on American soil. Because of this, he learned the necessity of prolonging the inclusion of the word “slave” in his presentations out of fear that the audience would want to end the discussion or leave all together.
“It is important to me as an actor and as an educator to make sure people understand what history is and how we got to where we are,” said Henley. “Without the knowledge of the past, you have no idea of where you stand in the present and exactly where the present it is going to take you as far as the future is concerned.”
For Henley, knowing the past allows him to tell the other side of the story, the side that does not always make the history books. Growing up in the sixties Henley didn’t learn about African-American history in school until he was a teenager. He gained most of his information from movies on television.
Henley is a descendant of slaves from the Abbeville Plantation in South Carolina, which he believes helps him in his role of Hercules. For him, it’s an opportunity to tell his family’s story and to give a face to what it was like to be a slave.
“My thing is to take that information and take who I am and try to educate those around me and say ‘this actually happened,'” said Henley.