Unlike most people, Steve Edenbo ’96 is quite aware of who might be watching him on his way to work. He scans the sidewalks before inserting his card into a parking meter and ignores his ringing cell phone if there are too many people around. But then again, Edenbo doesn’t have a job like most people. He portrays a 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson.
|Steve Edenbo introduces thousands of adults and children to the young Thomas Jefferson every year, often working in tandem with interpreters of Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush.
“Tourists just love to get these pictures,” he says removing dark sunglasses and donning his 18th-century-style overcoat. “Thomas Jefferson feeding a meter or talking on a cell phone—they love it.” And after a short pause he adds, “I guess I would too.”
Ten years ago Edenbo had no idea that performing as Thomas Jefferson could be a career option. At Dickinson he’d performed in several plays and with the Dance Theatre Group. Edenbo also organized open-mic nights, featuring readings from books, plays and original poems, singing and spoken-word performances. “These events inspired a tremendous shared feeling of community and kinship and remain some of my absolute favorite memories of Dickinson,” he says.
After graduating with a degree in English, he moved to Philadelphia to pursue acting. A few years later, when he was performing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, a representative from the American Historical Theatre introduced him to first-person historical interpretation.
There was no question that Edenbo could portray Jefferson. He not only bears a strong physical resemblance to our third president, but he also long considered Jefferson among his personal heroes. Historical interpretation, which he began doing in 1999, enabled him to combine his acting talent with two other passions—reading and writing.
“It’s a lot of work,” Edenbo admits. “I’ve been studying Jefferson for seven years, and I only just have the basics. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re speaking as if you’re Jefferson. You’re speaking as an authority.”
Jefferson faces many more negative comments from audience members than, say, a George Washington or Ben Franklin would, but Edenbo welcomes all comments and uses them as springboards for engaging and thought-provoking discussions. “I encourage everyone to ask questions, to challenge me. Whether it’s a fifth-grader or a corporate executive, everyone can learn something from speaking with Thomas Jefferson.”
On a recent work day, Edenbo’s first performance is staged opposite Philadelphia’s historic Christ Church for a group of seventh-graders. They wait patiently, seated in a semicircle around an old wooden chair intended for the guest of honor. All 16 have nametags around their necks, and the girls are wearing American flag bandanas, field-trip souvenirs.
Thomas Jefferson makes his entrance, striding through the room with a dignity that impresses the children and their chaperones. He speaks of the Declaration of Independence and of the phrase “all men are created equal,” of achieving goals and making small improvements.
He uses wooden toys to illustrate these complex ideas. The student are engaged—elbows on knees, hands on chins, eyes on Jefferson. Meeting him is just one of many events on the school group’s itinerary, but at the end of the hour, when almost every hand goes up to ask a question and every kid is squirming to get closer to him in the class photo, it is clear he has made a significant impression.
Edenbo stays in character on his way out, posing with a teenager while his father captures the image and greeting a woman in the cobblestone alley. He heads to City Tavern—an 18th-century-themed restaurant where he regularly performs—and orders some pepper-pot soup. Though Edenbo confides that he prefers the George Washington porter, he orders a round of Thomas Jefferson ales. At a table in the back, out of earshot of other diners, he can talk freely.
“I try to stay in character whenever I’m dressed as Jefferson. It’s difficult, but it helps with my performances,” he says. “For example, I’m dying from the heat right now, but I can’t take this coat off. Nobody back then would have done that.”
Before long, he’s negotiating the maze of hallways at North Penn High School in a Philadelphia suburb, while groups of high-schoolers from the National Association of Student Councils, dressed in color-coded T-shirts, swarm the halls on their way to the gymnasium for the evening’s event—Edenbo’s second performance of the day.
After a few minutes of quiet preparation, the patriotic music begins. Thomas Jefferson stands tall and walks onstage, honored to be portraying his hero for 3,000 cheering future leaders. There are bright lights and big screens and professional cameras at every angle. The speech lasts 10 minutes and is delivered with an eloquence uncharacteristic of Jefferson.
“That’s the one aspect I don’t portray accurately, but I think it’s for the better,” Edenbo explains. “He was a horrible public speaker.” Jefferson’s message of leadership and responsibility resonates with the students, and his exit is accompanied by the same loud applause that greeted him.
A couple minutes later, back in his car, Edenbo sounds relieved as he removes his scarf and opens the top buttons of his shirt. “Whew! What a crazy job I have. What a crazy job.”
For more information on Steve Edenbo’s portrayal
of Thomas Jefferson, visit www.yourthomasjefferson.com.
Nicole Greenfield ’02 is pursuing a master’s of religious studies with a journalism focus at New York University. She is the managing editor of The Revealer, an online religion journal www.therevealer.org.