Behind the Chautauqua: Haley Bowling as Anna Mac Clarke

Kentucky Chautauqua characters share with you their stories from the road, how they chose their characters, and the highlights from their most memorable performances. Meet Haley Bowling, who portrays Anna Mac Clarke.

“Command attention!”

I test my voice in the dressing room. My tie lands a perfect Windsor knot on the first try. Multitasking as I find my pitch, I sing, “I – I, ahem, I just got an invitation in the mail.”

After seven years of adjusting my wig, darkening my eyebrows and making sure my Hobby Hat is perfectly aligned before each Chautauqua performance, this is the only rehearsal I get. When the red lipstick finally goes on, that’s when I complete the transformation into a commanding World War II Women’s Army Corps soldier. “I am First Lieutenant Anna Mac Clarke.”

Kentucky Chautauqua performer Haley Bowling

Kentucky Chautauqua performer Haley Bowling

At age 14, I saw a Kentucky Chautauqua performance for the first time. Hasan Davis played Angus Augustus Burleigh, a soldier in the United States Civil War. He wore a military uniform and his face was timeless. Throughout the performance he would take off his hat and put it back on as he switched settings, first addressing his commanding officer and then his minister. He cried. Real tears rolled down his face at the end of the performance and the hair on my arms stood to attention. I didn’t know one person, acting alone, could conjure such emotion.

I saw him perform the same character again a few months later for a filming of the piece. As a friend of a friend, Hasan allowed me to give the introduction. Again he cried. And I felt even more of this soldier’s life seep into my being.

“You could do that,” said Judy Sizemore, outreach director for the Kentucky Arts Council, who had been my mentor since I was 9. She had let me tag along to both of Hasan’s performances.

“Yes, I could,” I said. “When I grow up.”

“You could do it now.”

I prayed for just the right character. Because I was so young, the person I portrayed had to have made an impact at a young age. It wasn’t until Judy Sizemore sent me the book Kentucky Women that I found Anna Mac Clarke. In that book, John Trowbridge with the Kentucky Military Museum wrote about this young African-American woman who volunteered with the Women’s Army Corps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Clarke led a successful opposition to a proposal to segregate black soldiers in their own regiment. She became the first black WAC officer to command a white unit. And she made national news after her protest against segregated seating in the base theater convinced the commanding officer to ban segregation on the base.

I immediately felt a connection. I knew she was the woman I wanted to portray.

Bowling as Anna Mac Clarke.

Bowling as Anna Mac Clarke.

At 16, I was accepted into the Chautauqua program and was able to begin the one-year preparation period of developing the information I had gathered into a living, breathing character of Kentucky history. I researched what it was like to be in the Women’s Army Corps. Trowbridge had done a tremendous amount of research that was the major source of information and guidance as I developed the character. He also made it possible for my first performance to be held at Anna Mac’s church in Lawrenceburg with her 82-year-old brother, Franklin, sitting on the front row.

With Franklin’s approval, the pressure of performing quickly faded. I found the strength to begin my travels across the state of Kentucky – visiting countless schools, community organizations, churches and Gov. Ernie Fletcher. But my favorite performance was at a detention center in Marion. I had arrived with my grandparents, found my way inside and got dressed. Just before I was scheduled to go on, the facility underwent a lockdown. I was given the option of leaving or waiting more than an hour until things cleared up. Having traveled nearly five hours to get to Marion, I decided to wait for what ended up being the most moving performance of my 6 ½ years as Lt. Clarke. The social circumstance of a young woman in the military in 1944 and a man in prison in the 21st Century was not without its parallels. The need for empathy was illuminated in the sense of community Anna Mac shared with the inmates – making that evening in Marion the most heart-felt and compelling performance I have experienced.

Several people went into the making of Anna Mac Clarke, the character. My mother and I wrote the script together. The story takes the audience through “a day in the life” – first meeting Anna Mac as their commander, then fellow officer, then commander once again. It was my mother’s idea to use an old scrapbook belonging to my grandfather’s sister – a device that provided seamless topic transitions throughout the script. My grandfather taught me how to salute, tie my necktie and ensure that my uniform is aligned properly. My grandmother and great-grandmother were responsible for covering a replica summer Hobby Hat with fabric from men’s winter military pants from 1944.

That same collection of 60-year-old pants was used to create my uniform. Originally, I rented an authentic WWII WAC uniform from a costume shop in Chicago and planned to purchase it. However, due to its rarity, the company refused to sell it. Mary Ann Shupe, costume designer at Berea College, used the uniform to pattern a flawless winter jacket. The skirt was made from khaki material. The shirt and necktie are original 1940s pieces. The watch, which has received many compliments for its authenticity, was purchased at the Family Dollar. And the shoes? Rack Room Shoes. Additionally, I collected vintage Athena Heads, Lieutenant bars, buttons and a WAC special service patch – all authentic insignia. My great-uncles taught me how to give commands and donated WAC books to use on my table as props. Finally, with all of these parts in place, it was Dr. Deborah Martin, director of the theatre laboratory at Berea College, who taught me how to stand up straight, enunciate, and ultimately, act like a WAC lieutenant.

Watching these many people contribute in telling Anna Mac Clarke’s story exemplifies the beauty of Kentucky Chautauqua. Their assistance has created the very character I work to perfect in the dressing room before every performance. While the characters in the Kentucky Humanities Council Chautauqua catalog are few, the lives that shape our history are many.

This is Kentucky’s story. And we are all part of it.

To book an Anna Mac Clarke performance featuring Haley Bowling, contact the Kentucky Humanities Council at 859.257.5932 or visit www.kyhumanities.org. This story appeared in the April 2009 edition of Kentucky Humanities magazine. To join the mailing list, please e-mail Editor Julie Nelson Satterly at julie.satterly@uky.edu. To download a PDF, visit http://www.kyhumanities.org.


1 Response to “Behind the Chautauqua: Haley Bowling as Anna Mac Clarke”

  1. 1 shana durham
    June 17, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    i need help
    i am doing this play and portrying this character
    what should i wear and what should i say???

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