The double life of Gabriel Whitney

Gabriel Whitney dressed in costume for a day of work at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. Photo courtesy of Gabriel Whitney

By Sophia Falbo and Chloe Wojtanik

Boston University News Service

On some days, he’s Gabriel Whitney. On others, he’s Thompson Maxwell, a patriot who dumped tea in the Boston Harbor in 1773. To the Boston University community, Whitney is a screenwriting graduate student, but to visitors of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, Whitney is an actor and historical interpreter. 

After he graduated from Hampshire College in 2022, Whitney was searching job boards for a summer part-time job to pay the bills. His background in theater, stand-up comedy and performance drew his eye towards a position at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. While not knowing much about Boston’s history prior to accepting the job, he has completed hours of research, memorizing and training to interpret real people who lived in New England during the 18th century. 

“It is up to me to kind of take elements of [Maxwell’s] story and interpret it and put it into our long guided tour material,” Whitney said. 

When hosting as Maxwell, Whitney guides guests through the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum on an hour-long tour; highlighting Maxwell’s role in the Tea Party and the overall history of the event. He does three to four of these tours a day with a 45-minute break in between each one. It was Whitney’s job to research the life of Maxwell and make his own script that includes language from the 18th century – as he has to stay in character the whole tour. 

On some days, as Maxwell, he also acts as a tea person in the cafe at the back of the museum. Whitney interacts with guests in a variety of ways in the team room, including taking pictures, playing colonial board games and talking about the tea that was aboard the ships which guests can sample. 

Whitney doesn’t only portray Maxwell, though; he also portrays Samuel Adams on days when he is not giving tours. As Adams, Whitney starts in the Old South Meeting House giving a 10-15 minute scripted speech recounting history – from the build up to the destruction of the tea, to the arrival of the ships at Griffin’s Wharf. He does six to eight of these tours a day.

Guests are invited to participate by either shouting “huzzah” at things they like or “fie” – along with putting their thumb on their nose and wiggling their fingers to imitate a flying flag – at things they don’t like. Whitney describes it as a way for visitors to be a part of the tour and really become immersed in the history themselves. 

No matter who Whitney is portraying when he arrives at work, he clocks in about an hour before his shift starts to check in with his manager and get dressed into his costume. He has about 30 minutes following his shift to get changed out of his costume and leave it in the locker room, as costumes aren’t allowed to leave the site.

At work, Whitney can always count being greeted by one of his co-workers’ friendly faces. He said that there’s many aspects of his job that he loves but his favorite part is the welcoming staff that has become family to him. He compared it to going to theater camp, but without the drama and with a paycheck. Additionally, Whitney said he loves how much history he’s learned that he wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for this job. 

“On top of just being a good place to make money and friends, I learned a lot working there,” Whitney said. 

This past year, in honor of the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, the company has done grave marker ceremonies at the participants of the Boston Tea Party’s gravesites across the country, including Thompson Maxwell. The museum opened up an exhibition on Phillis Wheatley – a formerly enslaved woman turned poetess – with an original copy of one of her books and recreation of the famous portrait of Wheatley with an actor in similar costuming and posing. 

On Dec. 16 – the official date marking 250 years since the Boston Tea Party – the cast and crew from the museum are doing a full scale reenactment of both the leadup to the event at Faneuil Hall to Griffin’s Wharf, where they will be throwing actual East India Company tea into the harbor. This event was pivotal in spurring the American Revolution and later the creation of the United States of America. 

Before the tea was thrown in the harbor, Whitney said there was a boycott of the East India Company because they were starting a monopoly in the colonies and leading many countries, especially in Asia, to starvation by restricting their power.

He equated this to the current situation in Palestine. Many Americans are boycotting businesses – such as Starbucks, McDonalds and Disney – because those companies are giving money to the Israel Defense Forces. Whitney said the Boston Tea Party shows that boycotting and uniting for the sake of human lives, in 1773 or 2023, is essential for maintaining peace and unity. 

“It shows that we’re showin​​g our voices as citizens and showing that we’re not going to stand for tyranny,” Whitney said. “There’s hope for the future.”

Whitney said that one his main takeaways from this job is learning about the different backgrounds that played a role in the Boston Tea Party, but more importantly how those vastly different people became a community that fought for each other. 

“No matter what country you’re in, no matter what dictatorship government, all the people that live there, whether they’re working class family members – they’re all human,” he said. “They all have their own stories to tell, and so [does] Thompson Maxwell, and I’m really happy to have brought his story to life.” 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.