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Clay Jenkinson: Duel Debater

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Clay Jenkinson

JEFFERSON VS ROOSEVELT! Two of America’s greatest presidents will face off onstage during Clay Jenkinson’s “Duel Debater,” a fundraiser for Raue Center For The Arts and the Crystal Lake Library Foundation on November 18!

Acclaimed scholar, writer, and historical interpreter Clay Jenkinson is known for his portrayals of multiple historical characters from Meriwether Lewis to John Wesley Powell. In “Duel Debater,” he will appear as both Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, as the former presidents face-off on a variety of issues.

When asked to share what the audience can expect from this historical showdown, Jenkinson explains,

“I will start out with Jefferson (so he can get a word in edgewise!), laying out some of the issues. Then Roosevelt will come onto the stage like a cyclone.” Though Jenkinson shares the costumes will become less pronounced as time goes on, the differences between these two great men will remain clear to the audience.

“We know that Roosevelt despised Jefferson. We have to imagine that Jefferson would have despised Roosevelt, as he did Andrew Jackson. There will be some fireworks. Jefferson is gracious, rational, serene and soft-spoken; Roosevelt is bombastic but brilliantly bombastic,” says Jenkinson.

Jenkinson hopes his performance will engage the audience in an important, and timely, discussion. “The lesson, as far as I am concerned, is that two of our greatest presidents were fundamentally different in their leadership style,” he says. “It’s like a Hamilton – Jefferson debate about the meaning of America, but it’s actually better, because Roosevelt came precisely 100 years after Jefferson, and can, therefore, bring the debate closer to our own time,” he says. “We are all now wrestling with the problem of strong leadership. I think everyone needs to be part of discussions like the one I am hoping to raise in Illinois.”

So, how does one inhabit not one, but two, of America’s greatest historical figures? Research. Jenkinson, who is well known for his interpretations of nearly a dozen historical figures, prepares for the debate by reading everything he can get his hands on and then making lists of the contrasts between the two men.  “My purpose is never to do history just for the sake of doing history, but to explore our history by way of exploring the perennial questions of American life. Jefferson was a man of his time. Roosevelt was very much a man of his time, too, and the two worlds have some things in common, and more not.”

Jenkinson has been performing as his best-known character, Jefferson, for several decades, but the acclaimed scholar, writer, and creator of the “Thomas Jefferson Hour” did not always see himself as a historical interpreter. “One of my dearest friends asked me to dress up as Jefferson for an event. I agreed in a moment of weakness,” he shares. “ “I did not know it would become one of the pivotal moments of my life. Once I got started, I realized that Jefferson was a Renaissance man and that interpreting him would be a lifelong continuing education for me.”

Of the many characters Jenkinson has portrayed over the years, it’s unsurprising that the award-winning historical interpreter names Jefferson as his favorite character when asked. “Jefferson is the baseline for the American dream, and he is the single most admirable man who was ever president, in my view, with the important asterisk of slavery,” he explains.

But Jenkinson admits that another historical figure is tied for the top spot. “Oppenheimer is my favorite because he is a tragic character, he refused to be pigeon-holed in life or work, because he was so widely and deeply curious, and because he raises the right questions about technology and humanism,” says Jenkinson. “He’s more compelling than that name might seem. I look in the characters I perform for soul-fissures, for the fractures that every human being has, but most of us never visit or resolve.”

Jenkinson cannot seem to limit himself to just two favorites, noting he loves performing as Roosevelt as the role allows him to channel his “inner rascal, provocateur, id” and that he also loves Lewis, because of his love for the wilderness and his fascination by the history of exploration. While trying to choose a favorite, Jenkinson notes “now I realize that I love each of my characters the way we love each of our children: differently, but intensely.”  

When asked if he would like to add any new historical characters to his impressive repertoire, Jenkinson lists Henry David Thoreau, the author of what he considers the most important American book. “Or,” he adds, “perhaps Winston Churchill. If I could figure out a proper British accent.”

Tickets to “Duel Debater” start at $45 and proceeds will benefit Raue Center and the Crystal Lake Library Foundation. For more information, visit rauecenter.org.