WILKES-BARRE — William Kashatus was impressed by many facets of the state’s founder, William Penn.
He was so impressed, in fact, that he began to dress and act like Penn to educate others about the state’s history.
Kashatus is a history professor at Luzerne County Community College. Before that, he said he was “a product of Quaker schools” from elementary school through college.
He also served as the director of religious studies and community service at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, which Penn founded in 1689. Kashatus was struck by Penn’s story, his conversion to the Quaker faith and “his desire to establish a utopian colony based on the Quaker principles of religious toleration, participatory government and pacifism.”
“I’ve been doing the performance for 20 years now, mostly for my students, but also for Quaker meetings, schools and retirement homes,” he said. “When Ed Rendell was governor, I often found myself in Harrisburg doing Charter Day and other events. I taught his son, Jesse, at Penn Charter.”
Kashatus will once again be filling the role of Penn for Charter Day on March 9 at the State Museum in Harrisburg.
Getting into character
Kashatus does not cut any corners in his portrayal of Penn. The costume is based off the only surviving suit of Penn’s clothing that his housed in the Museum in London. Kashatus even had it made to specification by a colonial costume designer.
“It consists of a blue woolen jacket and breaches, a silk wescott (vest), cotton shirt, and black broad-brimmed hat,” Kashatus said.
He noted that Penn was raised as a wealthy Anglican and was used to classier clothing. Quakers, however, typically wore simpler clothing, Kashatus said.
“He never could shed his love of bright colors or the wig he wore — both of which were hardly in line with Quaker simplicity,” he said.
Kashatus does different performances depending on who is audience is. If he’s in front of a school, he said he “plans Pennsylvania” with students. He has students decide who and what materials he should bring on his ship “Welcome,” as well as what government should be in place and how he should deal with the American Indians.
“The exercise allows them to think about what they value in life,” Kashatus said.
He takes a different approach with an adult audience, discussing Penn’s attraction to the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers) and why he converted. He also talks about how Penn wanted to create a Quaker lifestyle within his colony.
In Harrisburg, Kashatus discusses Penn’s various constitutions and the changes they have undergone throughout history.
A warm reception
Compared to other people he portrays, Kashatus said Penn is not intimidating. He described him as “somewhat aloof because of his intelligence” and an “elitest” due to his background, but he said people seem to like his performance.
The audience can still make a human connection with him, something that Kashatus said was important in producing living history.
“The audience can sense that he is genuine in his beliefs and they respect him because he was willing to go to prison to defend them,” Kashatus said.
Kashatus also saw Penn as an inspiration — a man who risked consequences for his religious and spiritual beliefs. Kashatus also referred to Penn as a statesmen who acted with integrity and is widely considered as an inspiration for the First Amendment right of freedom of religion, penned about a century after the founding of the commonwealth.