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17th Century Reality

A Virginia man goes back in time on a new PBS series.


But for this four-episode series, which begins May 17, he lived history as an indentured servant in a settlement in Machias, on the Maine coast. Viewers will witness the challenges of day-to-day life as it was in 1628, and that means the expected — backbreaking labor, challenging weather and primitive living conditions — as well as the unexpected — religious conflicts, devastating news from the outside world and even an AWOL colonist.

“I was amazed by what I am personally capable of in very primitive circumstances. I work a 9-to-5 desk job. I don’t use an axe. I don’t do a lot of heavy-duty home improvement stuff.”

While he did have to complete such backbreaking labor as building a ship’s mast, there’s one key thing he didn’t have to do for the program: act.

“We were not supposed to be pretending to be somebody we weren’t,” he says. “We were thrown into the setting as ourselves.”

For Tuminaro, that meant he could retain most aspects of his modern-day personality, including his homosexuality. He’s quick to point out, though, that being gay doesn’t define who he is today, and it didn’t when he time-traveled to the 17th century. Then and now, he’s “absolutely open,” he says.

This is not to say that all of his fellow cast members were cool about it. Jonathon Allen, another “Colonial House” participant, decided to come out of the closet during a mandatory church service. But the man serving as colonial governor, a Southern Baptist minister from Texas, gave him the cold shoulder.

Allen had grown close to the minister, Jeff Wyers, and his family before he threw open the closet door. “The Wyers family thought they had a kindred spirit, and then they had to deal with [Allen’s] coming out,” Tuminaro explains.

“He told me when we first met that his parents knew, but nobody in the colony did,” Tuminaro says. Allen’s decision to declare his sexual orientation to the “colonists” — and to a national TV audience — was inspired by Tuminaro’s openness.

“There was no room for sexuality. Nobody was having sex behind the scenes or anything like that,” Tuminaro says. “What mattered was whether you were an eager and willing participant in the project. At the end of the day, what mattered was whether you got your work done.”

Religion was a primary issue, more so than sexuality, according to Tuminaro, and the participants often “agreed to disagree.” In the 17th century, attendance at Sabbath services was mandatory. “The religious services we had were actually 21st-century religious services, not re-enactments of what would have been.”

Some colonists nevertheless chose not to attend. “They accepted the punishment,” Tuminaro says. “For their first offense, they had to wear a scarlet letter D — for ‘dissembling’ — for 24 hours. The second offense meant they lost a luxury item, which was prunes. The third meant they were staked out in the cornfield — tied to a wooden post for two hours as public humiliation.”

Before the experience began, Tuminaro thought the most arduous part would be the sheer physical difficulty of living as though he were in the 17th century.

“It turned out that the hardest part was being away from my friends, my partner, my family, for so long. Nobody there really knew who I was. We didn’t know each other well enough to even know when somebody was having a bad day.”

But they got to know each other — and the colonists who came to America nearly four centuries before them.

“It was such an amazing experience,” Tuminaro says. “And I’m fortunate to have so much of it documented. I’d go back in a second if had a chance.” S

“Colonial House” will air May 17, 18, 24 and 25 at 8 p.m. on PBS-TV.

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