The more Kyle Jenks learned about James Madison the more he liked him. That’s good because the way things have turned out, Jenks is spending a lot of time with Mr. Madison these days.
A historical interpreter who has portrayed the nation’s fourth president since 2015, Jenks is a Capital Region native and former Schenectady resident now living in Philadelphia. This Friday at 7:15 p.m., Jenks will perform as Madison in a History At Play, LLC virtual program titled “James Madison and the Forgotten War.”
“I liked him and I’ve grown to love him,” Jenks said of Madison, who is often referred to as the Father of the Constitution. “Everyone is fallible, but it’s my personal belief that James Madison is our most virtuous Founding Father, and we desperately need his heart, his soul and his mind during this crisis in our identity.”
The crisis Jenks referred to is the division in the country indicated by the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“In this current situation we’re in today that’s so scary for me, I’ve learned more about how and why the country was formed, how special and precious it is, and also how fragile it is,” said Jenks. “James Madison, the Father of our Constitution, is someone we need to remember, and it’s alarming to me how little people know about him.”
Jenks has been a historical re-enactor for more than a decade now, and for the last five years he has focused on Madison. He had an earlier gig as Philip Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, and from 2012-2015 he was also the producer/director of “Drums Along the Mohawk: Outdoor Drama,” a stage adaptation of the Walter Edmonds novel that played for three summers at Gelston Castle Estate in the town of Mohawk. He moved to Philadelphia in 2019 because that was the best place to be for a Madison interpreter.
“I really wanted to try to make a living as a historical interpreter, which is just about impossible,” said Jenks. “But I said to myself, ‘I’m single again, why don’t I consider myself graduating from college and the world is my oyster, and just go for it.’ So Philly was the place. I’m still pretty close to home and can get back to the Capital District easily. Madison spent quite a bit of time here, and I’m not too far from D.C. or New York.”
Jenks already had put together a pretty impressive resume interpreting Madsion before he left for Philadelphia. His two most important credentials were performing as Madison at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston as early as 2016.
When he auditioned for a part-time position as Madison with Historic Philadelphia, Jenks landed the job and was on his way.
“When I came down here, Historic Philadelphia had some money to play around with, so I auditioned, they liked me, and told me they would hire me,” said Jenks. “They also told me that it was just a part-time position, and that they didn’t know if they would have enough in the budget to do it next year. They told me, ‘Don’t put your whole bankroll with us.’ But it was something, and I was thrilled to get my foot in the door.”
Madison’s work put him in touch with History At Play founder and artistic director Judith Kalaora. They have performed together as James and Dolley Madison, and just recently Kalaora officially welcomed Jenks to her team.
“She is a trained professional actress who I highly respect,” Jenks said of Kalaora. “She has developed this business on her own and although struggling through COVID, her following has continued to grow. She has brought me into her troupe and has granted me my first solo performance as a member of History At Play. It’s a very important move for me.”
While virtual performances have kept Jenks busy, he’s longing for a return to the days of a live, in-person audience.
“The pandemic has not been good to an actor of any kind,” he said. “I’ve got some work, some in part thanks to Judith, but what any actor loves is to perform in front of people in-person. In my Zoom presentations, I’ll think, ‘well, that was Ok,’ but what you’re really looking for is that contact with people. It’s so much better when the audience is there with you.”
Jenks is hopeful of continuing to do some work with The League of Most Interesting Gentleman when the pandemic is over. Along with Jenks as Madison, that group includes actors portraying Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Gallatin, who served as secretary of the Treasury for Jefferson and Madison. Jenks has also written his own presentation for a two-person show, “Jame and Dolley: Opposites Attract,” which he has performed with Kalaora as well as two other actresses as Dolley.
“They had a very deep connection with each other, and their love grew to the point where they never wanted to be a part,” said Jenks. “I really enjoyed learning more about their relationship, and Madison was just a great person to get to know. He never said a bad thing about anybody. He was very gracious, very astute, and very funny in a private setting.”
Like most other members of wealthy Virginia families, Madison was a slave owner.
“I have to admit it, and when in character I’ll say how I knew it exists and that I don’t like it, and there were several attempts to abolish it in the Declaration and the Constitution and both times it was voted out,” explained Madison. “So in order to practically implement something better than what we have, we put slavery on the back burner.”
Jenks said Madison was torn by the injustice of slavery later in his life.
“He wrote letters to Harriet Martineau in New York City that he had daily reservations about slavery, but while he didn’t want it and didn’t like it, in his life he was constantly reliant on that kind of labor,” said Jenks. “Without it he would have gone bankrupt. We have to remember he lived in the 18th century and not forget our historical perspective, but in today’s world of cancel culture and presentism it’s a tough conundrum to deal with.”
Jenks’ presentation this weekend will focus on the War of 1812.
“It’s often called the forgottten war, and I’m not using the textbook approach,” he said. “Madison was our only commander in chief to be on the battlefield, but I’m going to look at him and his diplomacy and ask why we had to reach that point. Why did we have to come to blows with Britain again? Why a second British invasion? When you look closely at all the issues faced by all the ambassadors and diplomats, it’s quite a compelling story. It’s very dramatic.”
Madison’s performance will be live-streamed Friday at 7:25 p.m. and then viewable for the next 48 hours. The running time is approximately an hour with a Q&A to follow. Ticket sales, which are done on a pay-what-you-can basis and range from $10-$25, will close Sunday at 8 p.m. For more information visit www.historyatplay.com.