Within a burial plot at Friendship Cemetery, candlelight glances the silhouettes of anxious bystanders and the faces of a few worn tombstones before them. The springtime air carries a tune: “Wade in the water!” the voice bellows, rich and deep and melodic and young. The performer remains unseen by the crowd until standing among them. Like a ghost, he drifts to the gravestones and turns to face his audience.
* * *
This spring marks the 27th year of “Tales From the Crypt,” a project conducted by history teacher Chuck Yarborough at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science. The residential school was founded in 1987 in Columbus for academically gifted high school juniors and seniors who are native to the Magnolia State. Though MSMS emphasizes math and science — students can receive college credit for advanced calculus classes among others — the humanities are also intensive, especially for those 11th graders signed up for Yarborough’s “Tales” section of U.S. history.
“It’s amazing that anyone studies history given the fact that typically all students are required to do is memorize a bunch of dates, and that’s it,” Yarborough said. “And the kids who do this project — even the kids who aren’t history kids, which obviously at this school, most are not — they really like it.”
Conceived by the late MSMS founding faculty member Carl Butler, the program culminates with the Columbus spring pilgrimage, when, by candlelight and among the tombstones of those being portrayed, students enact certain lives and stories of Columbus citizens long gone. But it begins in the fall: Yarborough first curates a list of people buried in Friendship Cemetery, a final resting place founded in 1849 for about 22,000 souls. And, though Yarborough may recognize a surname here and there, he has never chosen the same names twice.
“I know some of the names, but the kids think I know everything about everybody,” he said. “But that’s just not true! I just write down names that are interesting.”
Based on no previous knowledge, students select a name and spend the rest of the fall semester researching that person’s life. The “Tales” students spend many class hours in the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library digging through archives, scrolling through microfilm and flipping through record books. They are looking for one thing: a story.
“It’s really difficult to get anybody to understand that history is not just this list of facts to memorize. It is the story of humanity,” said Yarborough. “And if you add human emotion to that story, then you’re really helping people understand a past.”
The students are hunting the curious, tragic, significant or unique. Sometimes, it is unearthed in nothing but a few handwritten words on the back of an envelope. Sometimes, it lies with the history of a family member buried in the same plot. And sometimes it’s extracted from the students’ own interpretation of the time and place in which their research subject lived.
By the end of the semester, each student writes a script based on his or her findings and then auditions for the chance to perform in the cemetery. Only a few are chosen — this year nine out of 41 — but it takes the entire class to pull off the performances, which will be from 7 to 10 p.m. March 31 and April 3, 5 and 7. Those who don’t act will be selling tickets, acting as tour guides and directing traffic for the more than 2,000 people who attend each year.
“What I think is so unique about “Tales From the Crypt” is that the students do everything down to even parking the cars,” said Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Carpenter said visitors from all 50 states and 19 other countries have come to the event. And, while Yarborough, a Mississippi Gulf Coast native, oversees the project, it is not his face they come to see.
“The joke in the cemetery is: People ask, ‘What’s this going to be like?’” Yarborough said. “And I say, ‘Well, the way it works is that you’ll be in a group that will move every three and a half minutes to a new performance. That’s the way we design it, and since it’s run mostly by 17-year-olds, it works exactly as planned.’ And people laugh. You know, it’s always kind of on the verge of being out of control. And I’m perfectly comfortable with that, because I think there are lessons to learn in that as well.”
But, mostly, the lessons lie within the students’ scripts. Two years ago, a performance by Jasmine King intrigued a reporter from the local Commercial Dispatch. King portrayed a former slave for one of the wealthier Columbus families of her time.
“It was the reporter’s first pilgrimage, and I think she thought it’d be just all about the white slaveholders,” Yarborough said. “And then she saw Jasmine’s performance, and it got her thinking about doing an article that explored how the black community viewed pilgrimage events. We got somebody to think. And if you can get people to think, progress is made.”
That same year, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered covered the program, which has received multiple accolades including the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
“I’ve really tried to help students understand the connections of race and class and gender and religion that can be explored locally and give them insight into something more global,” Yarborough said. “And they have taken to that splendidly.”
Those connections are emerging once again this year.
“This year is interesting to me because there are performances that explore that most common of human experiences — loss,” he said. “Performers explore the loss of loved ones or contemplate the loss of their own characters’ lives. They also explore the loss of dreams and prospects, the loss of hopes and expectations.”
A few of the research subjects depicted this year include one of the first women in Columbus to be charged with murder, a man who marched to Jacksonville, Fla., during the Spanish American War, and a 19-year-old woman who died from surgical complications.
“Essentially, ‘Tales’ is most successful when we are able to create spaces where the audiences and performers can consider or re-consider what they think they know about the world we all share,” Yarborough said. “Doing so, we all come to a greater understanding of what we have in common. This year looks to be another promising year in that regard.”
There’s even a Civil War soldier who died and was mourned by the Decoration Day ladies, four women who were the first in the nation to adorn the burial sites of both Union and Confederate soldiers and whose efforts inspired Memorial Day. Each year, several “Tales From the Crypt” students are chosen to portray those women. But the Decoration Day ladies are the only research subjects returning audiences can expect to see.
“Once the students have chosen those people, that person is never done again,” said Carpenter. “Some people say, ‘Well, I’ve been to ‘Tales’ twice. Should I go again?’ And I always say, ‘Absolutely.’ It’s our opportunity to share the work of some of the most unique and bright people in the state.”
Another constant about “Tales:” Half of the proceeds — usually several thousand dollars in ticket sales — go to the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group that sponsors the pilgrimage, and the remainder benefits a charity of the students’ choosing.
“I’m always excited to see my students step up and contribute to their community through putting on this important program, which the community has come to value so thoroughly,” Yarborough said. “Perhaps the most important life lessons I teach are learned in that cemetery: If you work hard at something, you can improve yourself. And if you work together, you can contribute to and improve your community.”
This year’s “Tales from the Crypt” will be at Friendship Cemetery in Columbus the following dates:
• Friday, 7 -10 p.m.
• April 3, 7 -10 p.m.
• April 5, 7 -10 p.m.
• April 7, 7 -10 p.m.