Denverite Theo Wilson spoke with us about I Was There, the new History Channel show he hosts.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to fly on the Hindenburg, survive the Johnstown Flood, or meet Jesse James, the History Channel’s I Was There series will—with the help of green screens and historical photos—take you there.
To guide you through it all is Theo Wilson. The activist, poet, actor, and public-speaking coach is also a student of history. An interest that he says grew because of his own family history: His grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman and his father, Sidney Wilson, is a historian who also worked with the Black American West Museum in Denver. Here, Wilson talks about the show, changing perspective, and Colorado history.
Q: Why do you feel a connection to history?
A: One of the things that happens when you grow up in a Black historical family is you connect with other people in Black historical families. So I was close with some descendants of the Negro Leagues; I was close to some of the descendants of Frederick Douglass when I was a kid. And when you share stories with these families, there are things that their ancestors will tell you from firsthand knowledge that people don’t really get to acknowledge publicly. My great-grandfather, for example, walked the streets of the Greenwood District in Oklahoma—the legendary Black Wall Street. And it was something that was spoken about in whispers until finally Black folks started pushing the narrative.
Q: A unique aspect of I Was There is that you flip the perspective and put viewers in the moment. Why is that important?
A: I Was There approaches the history that you do know from an angle that you don’t know. And we do it in first person. So I get to go into the actual event—the actual space around the actual people, including supporting characters who are very important and that history may not acknowledge as much. And we get to reconstruct an event from a whole new angle. It’s kind of mind-blowing.
Q: One of the interesting production techniques is that historical photos seem to move and grow—and you are in the middle of it.
A: We wanted to have me as your modern point of contact….I’m your tour guide through this event. And since I’m invisible, I don’t interrupt anything. Therefore, you don’t interrupt anything, and we just get a look at how everything went down.
Q: You must have spent a lot of time in front of a green screen [a backdrop that allows visual effects to be added later].
A: You have no idea….The green screen is just a lot of fun because you get to be a kid and use your imagination. The green screen is there for you to play around with. And the director is very, very, very important in the green screen project….They already have a general idea of what the end product is going to look like. They’re your point of reference and they’re making sure that you know how to make the space come alive.
Q: Why is it important to look at history through this lens?
A: I think the most important thing about re-examining history is understanding that history did not take place in the past. It took place in the now. So the people were experiencing it. And that’s very important, because the people who were living through the Johnstown Flood, the Hindenburg, the Battle of Stalingrad, and Bloody Sunday were grappling with the unknown. Just like we were—we are. In a show like I Was There, you get to see the people grapple with the unknown as it unfolded. This is not history for them. This is the present. I think that gives us a more emotionally impactful vantage point on the humanity of the people in that historical moment.
Q: I’ve got to ask: What moments in Colorado history inspire you to learn more?
A: I think the story of Barney Ford would be a great one to unpack. I think he is a Colorado hero that should have a little bit more light on him.
Q: It sounds like you’re really busy. What’s next?
A: Part of the reason why I got this gig was because of my ability to speak. It was my voice. It was my command of the language. And I teach that now. There is the Spitfire Public Speaking website with my master class that demystifies public speaking. I teach exactly what I’ve learned in theater that led to me getting this opportunity in the first place. Everything I learned from slam poetry all those years with Slam Nuba. That all comes to a head in this.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.