If you’re a regular foodie in Petersburg, you might notice an influx of film cast and crew members at lunch. Thanks to productions like Lincoln (2012), Meg Ryan’s Ithaca (2015) and the PBS series Mercy Street (currently filming), Petersburg is even more interesting than usual.
Anya Jabour and I met at Demolition Coffee for lunch and a chat about Mercy Street.
Jabour never imagined herself as a key contributor to a popular historical drama.
She didn’t even like history.
Then, an early college class about the New Deal piqued her interest. Jabour realized she had “enjoyed Louisa May Alcott’s writing and books like Little House on the Prairie all my life, without recognizing the stories as history. History isn’t just names, dates and dead presidents. Dead ordinary people are far more interesting.”
Jabour, now a professor and writer, would know. To research for her book detailing the lives of young Southern women, “I studied letters, diaries and scrapbooks of about 350 young women age 15-25.”
Thanks to that book, Scarlett’s Sisters, Jabour is now one of several Historical Advisors for the PBS drama Mercy Street. Each provides recommendations for a specific field of historical accuracy, like military, nursing, medical and Jabour’s specialties: US Women’s History, the History of the American South and the History of Families, Children and Youth.
After reading Scarlett’s Sisters, producer Lisa Wolfinger contacted Jabour, hoping she’d take a look at the pilot script. Once the show went to production with PBS, Jabour joined the script review team. “A few months before filming, she asked me to consult on-set for Mercy Street. I watch the scene set-up and answer any questions. I advise the writers, directors and actors about body language and how people would interact physically.”
Ensuring historical accuracy can be demanding. “During the 19th Century, hierarchies of gender, class and race were very important but were all being tested and questioned. I help find the balance: would the individual follow, bend or break the rules? How might that manifest in their behavior?”
In addition to working toward accuracy, the writers and consultants collaborate to create an enthralling story line. “In historical drama, the storytelling element is just as important as historical research, which can be challenging. We have to make it mesh and feel true to the period while appealing to a modern audience.” Producer Lisa Wolfinger jokes, “Mercy Street is Gone with the Wind meets M.A.S.H.”
As cast members and producers run through scenes, Jabour explains how each situation might have happened. “I give them options and they pick what works best for the dramatic element. We need scenes to look good on camera without breaking the rules historically.”
Why are programs like Mercy Street important? “They bring history to an audience which might not otherwise study the era. Mercy Street’s characters are appealing; people can identify with them. Each represents some aspect of history.”
“Aurelia, one of the Mercy Street characters, is a former slave who escaped during the war; she seeks freedom but doesn’t want to leave without finding her son, who was sold. Viewers learn how slavery and holding people as property had disastrous effects for family life and ties.
Emma wants to join the war and become a nurse, showing us how war opened opportunities for women. The nursing profession didn’t exist here before the Civil War.”
“Jimmy Green, Jr., is the oldest son. Under normal circumstances, he could anticipate inheriting everything, but because of his disability he is shunted aside.” Instead of fighting on the front lines, Jimmy is stuck at home. The situation highlights ideas about masculinity and disability.
For someone who didn’t think she liked history, Anya Jabour has managed to immerse herself. A history professor at University of Montana since 1995, she holds several degrees, including a Ph.D. in History from Rice University. She loves teaching history and even found time to help AnnaSophia Robb with a college assignment while on set. If you really want to see her eyes light up, ask about Hull House.
“If I could suggest a subject for another series, it would be Hull House in Chicago. I’m writing a biography about Sophonisba Breckinridge, one of the Hull House reformers. The house was combination community center and incubator for activists. Women involved in anti-lynching work, housing reform, labor legislation and suffrage came from Hull House. A young, immigrant factory worker wrote about her life before Hull House, spending fourteen hours each day attaching cuffs to sleeves. Thanks to her connection with the women at Hull House, she got involved in suffrage, became a writer, produced a play and went to the University of Chicago. Because of Hull House, an immigrant girl who dropped out to support her family was able to experience great opportunity.”
“Jane Addams, head of Hull House for roughly thirty years, was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The house had a dining room where everyone gathered; it must have been amazing. I’d love to recreate the world of Hull House and the women who lived there.”
For residents of Virginia, the Civil War legacy permeates our culture in a way different from other areas of the country. “It’s truly in your face every day. Petersburg is still living with the echoes of war and slavery.”
Most of us Virginians, caught up in everyday life, don’t find time to take advantage of the rich heritage and historical sites surrounding us. Thanks to Anya Jabour and Mercy Street, we have a chance to learn our history and enjoy it, too.
Missed the first season? Check out www.pbs.org/show/mercy-street/ to watch full episodes.
Featured Photo: Anya Jabour on set Credit Lisa Quijano Wolfinger