New May 4 play recreates personal testimonies

Kyle McDonald

The “May 4 Voices Play” debuted last night, attempting to bring to life the personal testimonies found in the May 4 Oral History Project. Wick Poetry Center Director David Hassler spent the summer listening to each testimony found in the May 4 Oral History Project.

“I scripted a play from these transcripts, pulling out voices from all these different perspectives, sharing their memories of the May 4 tragedy,” Hassler said. “It educates an audience about the historical reality around the May 4 tragedy.”

The play’s dialogue gives the audience a sense of perspective from numerous viewpoints, including guardsmen who joined the Ohio National Guard to escape the Vietnam War draft, different types of students, townspeople protecting their businesses, administrators struggling to guide their students and parents of students.

“Whatever place you were standing on that day, when you hear these stories — these very human stories — you get a sense of a shared sense of trauma and confusion and fear,” Hassler said. “My hope is that in distilling their stories and voices, we hear something that speaks to all of us.”

After the performance, community members were encouraged to gather and share their opinions and thoughts on the historical event.

“The whole concept around it (the play) was designed to bring healing,” said Katherine Burke, director and producer of the play.

Thirteen students performed the play as part of a devising theater class taught by Burke.

“I feel very excited and proud of the passion and conviction with which the Kent State students have embraced this project,” Hassler said.

“We’ve spent the whole semester dealing with examining May 4 through the lens of theater,” Burke said.

Jay Washington, a sophomore theater major performing in the play, said he wasn’t familiar with the history of the incident before coming to Kent State from his hometown of West Palm Beach, Fla. After spending a semester studying the event and rehearsing the play, Washington said he feels more connected with the university.

“This university is not just about going to classes,” Washington said. “It’s a lot of history involving this incident. It’s a school built on excellence and history.”

Washington said his biggest challenge was relating to the voices in that time period.

“It’s kind of challenging to relate to my character; portraying a black man at the time, right after Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated,” Washington said.

Burke said she hopes the play helps inspire today’s generation, which she feels may have trouble relating to the incident that happened 40 years ago.

“I think that one of the reasons this play is important, especially for students, is that seeing and hearing these words, spoken by people who are now the age that those people were in 1970, really bridges a gap,” Burke said.

The “May 4 Voices Play” is part of the three-piece May 4 Voices Community Arts Project coordinated by the School of Art Galleries and the Wick Poetry Center. The other two pieces of the project are the May 4 Voices Installation, an interactive art gallery on display at the Downtown Gallery and the May 4 Voices Community Story Quilt, a quilt that will be pieced together with donated patches from community members.

Burke, who moved to Kent two years ago, said she feels the project has connected her with the university and community.

“I feel really blessed to be able to be a part of this,” Burke said. “For me it’s a way to understand and know my new community. I’ve learned so many things about this campus and this city that I never would have known had I not done this.”

Contact performing arts reporter Kyle McDonald at [email protected].