Minimalistic May 4 play offers first-person perspective of shootings

Brittney Trojanowski

Kent State student actors will use a blank stage as their canvas to recreate May 4, 1970. The actors will use their bodies for props and music, only filling the area with a dozen or more chairs, a handful of instruments, a couple of flashlights and two white sheets.

“May 4th Voices,” scripted by David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, is meant to exhibit simplicity and visceral emotion.

The students will perform the play Friday at the Oral History Association’s annual meeting in Cleveland. It will be broadcasted on local PBS channels.

“It’s a pivotal moment,” play director Katherine Burke said. “A pivotal 13 seconds in American history that changed the course of the war, that changed the world, and it’s important for people to understand what happened back then.”

The play offers a different perspective on the shootings, immersing the audience in the life and times of the wounded and witnesses of May 4, 1970.

Performing arts students have been rehearsing “May 4th Voices,” a play inspired by the May 4 Oral History Project, since September. The cast uses verbatim quotes and contributing context to bring the events to life.

It tells not only the story of Kent State students but also the stories of the larger Kent community and National Guardsmen.

This is Megan Melville’s second time acting in “May 4th Voices.” She said she has learned many things about the shootings that she didn’t know before. The play became something very special to her.

“The history of it all is just something so powerful,” Melville, senior electronic media major, said.

Although it has been performed twice before, Burke said this performance will be different. In previous performances, the cast, which included students and community members, performed a staged reading, where they were reading from the scripts in their hands. This time, all lines will be memorized, the play will be much more physical and active to enhance the experience for the audience.

Unlike shows on Broadway, the play will use few props and all scene changes are done in front of audience. Burke explained called this “devised staged theater.”

“This is where they [the cast] are generating all of the movements — the sound, the lighting even,” Burke said. “They’ve come up with all of the ideas for this show, it’s been an incredible process.”

Meagan Eishen, sophomore theatre studies major and cast member, said it is interesting to portray the victims and survivors of May 4, 1970.

“As one of the cast members said the other night, our generation is a lot of ‘me’ and ‘I,’ and back then, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it was about ‘we,’” Eishen said. “If one person stood up, everybody stood up behind them.”

Burke said the play will give viewers an understanding of May 4 they otherwise would not have.

“It’s important for the students to have this connection and to have a deep understanding of the students of 1970,” Burke said. “Why did the shootings take place? What were the students’ reactions to it? What was the build up to it? And making understand that these are real people, and they are still real people and their history is important. They are important.”

The Kent State University Press will publish the play in Spring 2013.

A free performance of “May 4th Voices” will be presented 8 p.m. Oct. 20 in the Wright-Curtis Theater at Kent State’s Music and Speech Center.

Contact Brittney Trojanowski at [email protected].