January 25, 2001
As professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University, Dr. Doug Watson delivers lectures everyday. Next week during the first chapel service of the spring semester, he'll lecture in front of the student and faculty body, not as professor, but as Will Rogers.
Watson's presentation during OBU's 10 a.m. gathering in the university's Potter Auditorium will be one of his more than 100 appearances as Rogers in more than 10 states.
A heavily researched portrayal that he sees as much from a scholarly approach as from a performance standpoint, Watson's Rogers is a man in the prime of life-unashamedly cowboy-yet fully aware of his role as popular social pundit.
"From the beginning, my intention was to do the humorist, the commentator on American life and on our common human situation," Watson said. "This is more the Will Rogers of the late 1920's and 1930s."
Watson's research climaxed in the production of carefully chosen content that was representative of the spirit of the man, not just memorized lines.
"It's not enough for the text to present history, though that may be part of it," he said. "The text should stimulate a response of its own from the audience."
In deciding on an angle from which to portray Rogers, Watson was concerned with the lack of attention he put on the roping cowboy image that many people associate with him.
A conversation with Rogers' son, Jim, reassured him his direction was significant.
"His father, he said, was not a man who wanted to be known as a cowboy," Watson said. "He had lived far beyond that identity, though he continued to love his ranch activities and surroundings."
Watson has been an active participant in the modern Chautauqua movement since 1991, when he debuted his characterization of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Great Plains Chautauqua Society's "American Renaissance" series. In 1994, he added a Stephen Crane program to his repertoire, and he performed that character for four summers on the Great Plains.
Both programs have continued to be part of the Kansas and Oklahoma state humanities councils' History Alive! Series.
"I've done a couple of other characters in my Chautauqua career but never one that I have come to love so quickly or consistently," he said. "And none that I have wanted so much for the audience to hear and understand."
Watson, also director of OBU's honors program, is a graduate of Baylor University, West Texas State University and Texas Tech University. He has taught at OBU since 1980, and was a Fulbright lecturer in Nigeria in 1988-89. His wife, Kay, is a middle school English teacher. They have one daughter.
"I hope that the ideas in the programs have enough of history to give a sense of life in Rogers' own time but enough of today to make the audience consider our general social or human condition in light of his words," Watson said. "I hope the audience will go away glad to have heard a familiar line or two but also wanting to talk and think more about what it means to live in a democratic society.
"If that happens, then I think Will himself would be pleased."
Not denying the notability of the many phrases that Rogers coined, Watson says that his most important contribution was the frequent and intentional use of the pronoun "we" when speaking to the American public.
"If I can accomplish anything by my programs, I hope it will be a reinvigoration of that common, shared identity," he said. "Our society has always been strong for individualism. There's no danger of that dying out, I think. But we need to be constantly reminded about the other side of our identities - the part we share with others."