Legacy of May 4 remembered in Kent alum’s play

Kelly Pickerel

Ray Miller was traveling from one class to another May 4, 1970, when he decided not to take his usual path behind Taylor Hall.

Maybe it was because of the student protests and the National Guardsmen, or maybe it was something else. Either way, the choice may have saved his life.

“It’s telling me, ‘You’re here for a reason, and you better learn from it,'” said Miller, now a theater and dance professor at Appalachian State in North Carolina.

Miller is not wasting his good fortune. He has spent more than 10 years working on a play based on the four days prior to the shootings, and it’s nearly finished.

After attending the 1995 Remembrance Day, Miller began formulating ideas for what has become “The Tragedy at Kent State.” Writing was put on hold, however, after he and his wife adopted a small girl from China. Now that she’s older, Miller felt he was ready to devote more attention to the play.

He also continued writing because of events currently unfolding worldwide.

“I began again because of the increasing frustration with the dual war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the similarities to the events in the ’60s and ’70s,” Miller said. “Also, after the Virginia Tech tragedy, a lot of the students here (at Appalachian State) were affected because they considered it a sister institution to us.”

Appalachian State and Virginia Tech are 160 miles apart, a three-hour drive. The shootings last April, Miller said, would allow students to relate to the events at Kent State.

The play isn’t entirely a historical look at what happened, he said. The authority figures give the facts, while the other characters introduce an emotional storyline.

“I think that’s how we felt at the time,” Miller said. “We looked at authority figures as always right, and we acted how we felt and with our hearts.”

Miller will present a staged reading of the play Friday and Saturday at Appalachian State. Afterward, Miller said he hopes a discussion will provide insight on how to improve the work.

Miller said he plans to complete the play by Christmas and submitted to his department for review for next season.

“It’d be great to have the play out during this next election,” he said. “It would encourage student conversation.”

Miller also said he’d like to see the play performed at Kent State.

May 4 muse

The May 4, 1970 tragedy has played muse for many creative minds.

Alan Canfora, director of the May 4 Resource Center, was shot in the wrist the day of the shootings. He said it’s not surprising that the shooting has become the subject of much artistic interpretation.

“I think the Kent State tragedy was epic — it was of Shakespearean proportions,” Canfora said. “It has all the elements of a great story: war, peace, the idealism of youth, passionate protest.”

Below is a limited list of productions:

1976 “Kent State: A Requiem”

The play by J. Gregory Payne aimed to present historically factual information, as well as the emotional repercussions of the shootings from the perspective of Louis Schroeder, whose son William was killed on May 4.

1981 “Kent State”

NBC’s made-for-TV movie chronicling the May 4 shootings aired on Feb. 8, 1981, and was filmed at Gadsden State Community College and Jacksonville State.

1995 “Nightwalking”

The play by Sandra Perlman premiered in Chicago and examines the memories of those affected by the May 4 shootings decades after the event took place.

2000 “Witness To…”

Dance Alloy of Pittsburgh and the Kent Dance Ensemble commemorated the 30th anniversary of May 4 with a ballet that took place at the site of the shootings, recreating the events through interpretive dance.

2001 “The Year That Trembled”

The fictional coming-of-age feature film based on the events that took place on May 4 promised both a “war chronicle and an unconventional love story.”

Jenna Staul

Contact student politics reporter Kelly Pickerel at [email protected].