Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 7, 2013

Varina and Molly

Roommates share passion for Civil War history and portrayals

By JAMIE PARSELL
Associated Press

BLUEFIELD — Jennifer Bohannan, 23, and Melanie Blume, 24, share the rent, take turns washing the dishes and help pay the bills. Pretty typical for a new college graduate and a senior theater major, but roommates Bohannan and Blume share more than just living space.

Bohannan, a native of New Hampshire, and Blume from Forest Hill, are both Civil War actors. They will participate in the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Celebrate West Virginia! 150 Wonderful Years! Heritage Festival on April 13 at the Bluefield Area Arts Center in Bluefield.

“We will be washing the dishes and talking about things we can do to add to our monologues and build our costumes,” Blume said. “We bounce ideas off each other.”

Blume portrays horsewoman Molly Tynes, known as the female Paul Revere of the Civil War. Tynes is credited for riding to Wytheville, Va., and warning the town that the Union Army was coming to capture the salt mines and railway.

Bohannan, the career service coordinator at Bluefield College and a volunteer at the Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell, takes on the role of Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederate States of America and wife of President Jefferson Davis.

“I have been portraying Varina for about three years,” said Bohannan. “ ... She is unknown even with people who are passionate about the Confederate side. No one has really done her before. I was excited about introducing a brand new character to show more about the background and personal life of being a first lady, a wife and mother and trying to hold everything together. I thought it would be really interesting and challenging as an actor as well.”

To prepare for their monologues, Blume and Bohannan are always researching and reading books on their subjects. Bohannan keeps a cheat sheet about Varina’s life. However, sometimes there are a few gaps in history. At one event, a young child asked a question about Varina that wasn’t in the history books. So, Bohannan improvised based on what she knew about the woman’s personality.

“I focus and step into her shoes and mindset. There isn’t a set routine. It is just saying I am Varina and being her,” she said.

Bohannan said there is plenty to learn about her character’s role in the war and her influence.

“She was against the succession; she was not in favor. Before she married Jefferson Davis, she was member of the Whig Party. They came from very different backgrounds and she had family in both the North and the South,” she said.

Bohannan added that Varina embodied her family and the role of a wife and mother. Despite her opinions, she supported Davis’ career and role in the Confederacy.

Even with the local connection between Tazewell County and Molly Tynes,  Blume is discovering there isn’t a lot of information about the famous night ride and only one known photograph of Tynes.  

“I am in the middle of preparation and this is my first time. I am new and treading the water,” Blume said. “I am trying to learn all the information inside and out, but there is limited information. I am going to try and find out as much as I can about the people of that era. I can look at the cities she grew up in and the customs of women horseback riders.”

She also mentioned a second theory about Tynes’ ride, a more scandalous story than warning Confederate soldiers.

“The theory is that she was not going to Wytheville to warn the army, but actually having an affair with someone in Wytheville. I find it interesting that people spread rumors about her. A lot of people can identify with having their motives questioned,” Blume said.  

She said her roommate inspires her research. Blume also credits Bohannan for encouraging her to step in Tynes’ shoes — literally. The women also have to dress the part. Blume is in the middle of putting her dress together. She said it has been a challenge.

“First, you start by researching historical patterns. I have chosen a pattern. My next important thing is getting the right undergarments because they make the shape. The fashion of the day was all about the silhouette. I am waiting for a new corset and that will change my measurements. Then, finding historical appropriate fabrics are the next important thing,” Blume said.

Corsets? Hoops skirts? Both women essentially travel back in time. But Bohannan loves her purple antebellum-style ball gown, but the hoop skirt makes it hard to drive. And the corset? It limits her mobility. Yet, she is in love with the rich color, satin and lace.

“Varina was fond of rich fabrics,” she added. “I get to play dress-up.”

At the Heritage Festival, Blume and Bohannan will join other Civil War actors, ranging from Gen. Robert E. Lee to John Brown.

Bohannan believes re-enactments and portrayals are revealing and an important teaching tool. At Bluefield College, she said a class on the War between the States filled up quickly and many students are expressing interesting in local re-enactments.

“It is so much more interesting to listen to an re-enactment than to read about it in a book,” she said.

Blume agrees, but also feels that portrayals give a voice to women like Varina and Tynes.  Even though they were women, they didn’t fall into the typical stereotype. They did have a lot less rights, she said. But they did so many different things and weren’t OK with just stepping aside.

The portrayals are just many of the events scheduled throughout the day. The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, contact 304-325-6358.

—Contact Jamie Parsell at jparsell@bdtonline.com.