President James Madison died 176 years ago, but don't be alarmed if you bump into him this week roaming the sidewalks of his namesake university in Harrisonburg, Va.
Sarah M. Everett, a theater major at James Madison University, is a James Madison impersonator who has gained attention for her portrayal of the nation's fourth president. At 5 feet 4 inches tall, and weighing about 100 pounds, she is almost identical in size to the soft-spoken Madison.
This week, on what would have been Madison's 261st birthday, Ms. Everett will don a three-cornered hat, a hand-tailored double-breasted coat with tails, and shoes from the period, and socialize as Madison with her fellow students and campus visitors. She'll also wear a white wig, although Madison displayed his own hair.
"When I'm dressed as Madison, first person, I expect to be treated as Madison," she says. "I never break character at any time when I'm dressed as James Madison, even in class."
Ms. Everett became something of a sensation two years ago when she arrived at the university as a transfer student from Juneau, Alaska, and began appearing in her Madisonian regalia. She had initially feared she'd be humiliated by her peers. Instead, she was embraced.
When she's in character, she says, people don't call her Sarah. "They call me 'Mr. Madison' or 'Mr. President,'" she says, or—this being college—"J. Maddy."
Ms. Everett's interest began as part of a high-school project and quickly evolved into a passion after an event at the president's Montpelier estate in 2008, where she met Ralph L. Ketcham, a Syracuse University emeritus professor and Madison's biographer. Mr. Ketcham, she says, noted her resemblance to Madison and then encouraged her to follow in the footsteps of John Douglas Hall, the statesman's best-known impersonator.
Ms. Everett says she digested every scholarly work she could find on the man who is known as the father of the Constitution, searching for clues on how to convey his persona. "I raise Madison up from the books that I have read, and I put him on, essentially, through my costume, through my gestures, through my physical behavior," she says. "I bring him to life as a man."
In an e-mail, Mr. Ketcham praised Ms. Everett's commitment and passion for her work. "She is very well informed and catches Madison's style and language nicely (as much as we can say that two centuries later!)," he wrote. "Her audiences will get an accurate, even nuanced understanding of Madison. She would be no danger to Madison scholarship."
She has made several paid appearances as Madison and has interned at Montpelier, where she would like to work full time after her graduation in December. This being the bicentennial of the Madison-led War of 1812, she expects to keep busy portraying him. But Ms. Everett says she is careful not to slip too far into character.
"I've had to learn that I can't make my identity James Madison because I'm not James Madison," she says. "God created me for a certain purpose in life. Part of that is interpreting Madison, but God has something else for me, too."