Words by Samantha Ickes
Photos by Andrea Noal
Members of the Kent State Tuscarawas campus and community recall the events with the 45th-anniversary production “May 4th Voices.”
In the play “May 4th Voices,” Kylie Morris’ character takes care of an injured woman (portrayed by Alexis Long) after armed National Guardsmen fired into a crowd of students who were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. The play incorporates first-person experiences of those who were witnesses to the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970.
Six-year-old David Hassler stood outside his childhood home as an army helicopter landed in the field beside his house. He was told to go straight home from school after all the elementary schools in Kent received calls claiming there were bombs hidden within the buildings. None of the adults in his life wanted to talk about what happened May 4, 1970 at the university not far from his home.
“I didn’t understand or have language of what was happening,” Hassler says. “We were sheltered from it.”
Years later, Hassler, now director of the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State, discovered the oral histories of May 4 in the special libraries collection. The Oral History Project contains almost 150 interviews of those who witnessed the shootings.
“Discovering the oral histories and working on the play was a way for me to understand and talk about it,” Hassler says.
The recorded narratives contain stories from Ohio National Guardsmen, faculty and students who were on campus during the infamous shootings, in which guardsmen shot at students who were protesting the United States’ decision to invade Cambodia. The shootings resulted in four deaths and nine injuries.
Hassler knew the effect the May 4 shootings left on Kent State and how the events of that day still resonate with the university 45 years later.
“I enjoy sort of helping others find their voice in telling their story,” Hassler says. He says he felt it was important for the community and the nation to know what happened—from the eyes of those who were there, rather than through newspaper clippings and headlines.
Hassler and his wife wrote a play that was based on the oral testimonies of urban garden workers in Cleveland in the late ’90s. “I find that I’ve done this multiple times in my life, and it’s something I really have a passion for,” he adds.
In the summer of 2009, Hassler began picking and choosing anecdotes from the Oral History Project, placing them into a script for a play titled “May 4th Voices,” which will be performed at the Kent State Tuscarawas campus. All the dialogue is taken from the collection except the written narration, which comes from a poem written by Maj Ragain. Bart Herman, a Tuscarawas County resident, will voice the narration.
“It was a college campus, not a battlefield. There’s no enemy here.”
Ragain, an instructor at the Wick Poetry Center, has five published poetry collections and teaches writing workshops at the Kent campus. He also works with Warriors’ Journey Home, a healing circle for veterans, and a veterans’ writing circle through the Wick Poetry Center. His poem “May 4, 1970 / A memory” serves as the voice of the narrator that is woven between the anecdotes of witnesses in the production.
Ragain himself narrated the very first production of the show in 2010. His memory “holds all the voices together,” he says.
Ragain witnessed the events. He remembers the months leading up to the day Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized in Kent and marched through the streets. Anger and disappointment welled up inside those who protested the war. More than 100 veterans marched, stopping the traffic on Main Street in front of what is now Starbucks.
May 4 was a Monday, clear and warm with flowers and trees in bloom. Ragain went to Satterfield Hall for the first class he had that day, only to find it canceled because of a rally in the commons. Ragain walked toward the commons with two of his friends when he saw the first white plume of tear gas go off.
“It must have been just after noon when I watched a squad of national guardsmen kneel, lock and load in front of Satterfield,” Ragain wrote in his poem. “It never occurred to me, nor to anyone else I talked to, that the guard carried live, steel-jacketed ammunition.”
Ragain didn’t witness the shootings, but an hour or two later he began to piece the events together.
“We did not think of ourselves as the enemy, dissidents but not enemy, believing the guard to be on a peacekeeping mission, a civil action against unarmed citizenry,” he wrote in his poem.
The actors of “May 4th Voices” reenact the moments before armed National Guardsmen fired into the crowd of protesters.
Even to this day, Ragain finds it hard to understand why the guardsmen open fired on the students that Monday afternoon in 1970.
“It was a college campus, not a battlefield,” Ragain says. “There’s no enemy here. That remains as one of the things that sticks with me. I wonder if we’ve learned anything from the history. We’re fighting the Vietnam War again with Iraq and Afghanistan.”
On the 45th anniversary of the shootings, the play will be performed at the Kent State Tuscarawas campus.
The Performing Arts Center, also known as the PAC, is only four years old at the Tuscarawas campus. The theatre program continues to grow and the production of “May 4th Voices” is highly anticipated.
“The impact on our university, first and foremost, is that this is our legacy,” says William Auld, director of the Kent Tuscarawas production. “No matter where you go in the world, no matter what you do, this is synonymous with the university. Whether it’s a fair legacy or not a fair legacy that we sort of inherit, it’s reality.”
Community members were welcome to audition for the production as well as students, both theater and non-theater majors. Auld says it is the first time people outside of the university have ever been a part of a school production. He decided to open the cast to people from the community after a few residents reached out to him about the play.
The cast consists of 17 members, two of whom are from the community. Ragain first met with the cast in late March.
“It’s something we need to learn from and we need to keep learning from so history doesn’t repeat itself.”
After hearing about the production, Herman reached out to Auld because of his personal connection to the shootings. In 1970, Herman’s older brother worked for the Dover Police Department and was called to drive to Kent. Surrounding police departments were contacted for assistance with the rally.
Despite Herman’s young age, he remembers his mother worrying as his brother drove to Kent. However, it wasn’t long before his brother returned home after being radioed that shots were fired and the campus was closed.
“It just became a part of my life,” Herman says. “And then when I did attend Kent State even more so. I just think it’s an important piece of history that needs to be told. It’s something we need to learn from and we need to keep learning from so history doesn’t repeat itself.”
At the beginning of the rehearsal process, dramaturge Julie Stephon, who acts as a consultant for the theater company, set out to find what the students knew about the shootings, which she later realized wasn’t much.
Stephon wanted the students to get a feel for the Vietnam era and how life differed from 1970 to present day. “It’s foreign to them because it’s not part of their culture,” she says.
“It’s not a play. This is real life,” she adds. “This is history. We’re really trying to bring it to life so that they can feel like they know the subject—so they’re not just reading lines.”
Stephon’s involvement goes beyond simply teaching the students about the events leading up to and surrounding May 4. She’s more interested in finding out what happened the next day and the impact it had on the people of Kent. So far, a dozen residents have been interviewed, and their stories will be featured on a DVD, which also includes a recording of the play.
Kylie Morris plays a character with post-traumatic stress disorder. Morris finds it difficult to go back to her normal routines after rehearsals because of the heavy material discussed at practices and the seriousness of her role. Morris, a freshman theatre studies major, says the dialogue and testimonies of witnesses affect her on an emotional level, especially as the cast begins to recite from memory instead of reading out of the playbook.
In one scene, the characters lay flat on their backs in two rows with their feet touching as Morris walks through, crossing over their legs and feet. She is at a lake, foggy and dark, walking through the rocks, thinking about the tragic events.
Her breathing begins to heighten as she remembers the white clouds of tear gas that covered the commons. She tries to tell herself that it is only fog. A branch cracks, and it reminds her of the sound of a rifle loading. She runs, screaming before exiting the stage.
“It’s very heart-wrenching just being in it,” Morris says. “It’s hard to rehearse here at night then get up and go to school the next morning.”
Jared Shepherd, portraying a National Guard member in a rehearsal of the play “May 4th Voices,” reflects after armed National Guardsmen fired into the crowd of protesters.
On April 9, Dean Kahler visited the Tuscarawas campus and met with the cast to share his personal experience. Kahler was a victim of the shootings and is now paralyzed.
Kahler told the students about growing up on a farm in Northeast Ohio and the transition he went through as he started his first year of college. Like any student, Kahler felt overwhelmed by classes and essays and learning how to manage his time.
Kahler, who was in his freshman year at the time, says he was not on campus when the events leading up to May 4 occurred. He remembers feeling shocked at the uproars at Kent State as he saw the nets unfold on television. What happened at Kent State in the days preceding May 4 was happening all over the United States during this time as a result of President Richard Nixon’s speech on April 30, he says.
“People were really angry,” Kahler adds. “People really felt betrayed. People felt lied to by Richard Nixon.”
In Nixon’s speech, given on April 30, Nixon discussed entering Cambodia, angering people across the country after he made promises of a “secret plan” that would aim to stop America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
“I was upset like many of the other college students,” Kahler says. In 1968, Kahler saw Nixon speak at the University of Akron but was disappointed and angry about Nixon’s April 30 speech. Rather than keeping his promise to end the war, Nixon was fueling the war by invading another country.
Kahler remembers getting up for breakfast the morning of May 4. Kahler decided to skip his first class at 7:45 a.m. and instead spent the day hanging out with his friends.
“We decided to get an early lunch and see the anti-war demonstration at the commons. And the rest was history,” Kahler says.
Kahler told the students about going to the hospital after he was shot that day. He was expected to be in rehab for almost a full year, pausing his college career. However, he healed more quickly than his doctors anticipated and was released Oct. 25, 1970.
Kahler attributes his quick recovery to being an athlete in high school. By participating in sports, Kahler was able to see what the rehab was doing to his body, which helped speed up the process. He returned to school in January of 1971.
“They told me that I was one in a million type of patient,” Kahler says. Kahler did not linger on his paralysis, but instead expressed how thankful and happy he was just to be alive. He says he was not going to waste a minute of his life being upset about being disabled.
After the shooting, Kahler and others went to Congress to stop other unarmed civilians from being shot or treated violently when officers are working to control a crowd. Kahler says their efforts were well received from the military perspective, but they did not transfer to the mindset of law enforcement.
Kahler says while a civilian would be put on trial and sent to jail for killing an unarmed citizen, police are getting off “scot-free.” Kahler describes the situation as a travesty in the U.S. that has continued to worsen as time progresses. He says police officers are learning a tactical battle mindset with no focus on how to deal with the psychology of a given situation.
“They never got the message,” Kahler says. “It’s gotten worse as time has gone on, and it’s got to stop. It’s a tragedy, and it’s a travesty in this country. They need to understand the psychology of most of these situations they’re in.”
“There’s three sides to every issue. There’s yours, theirs and there’s the truth.”
Prior to production, many of the students involved in the play weren’t fully aware of the events that occurred on and around May 4, Herman says.
“They knew what happened, but it’s been a learning experience,” Herman says. “It’s interesting seeing their reactions and hearing how it’s affecting them 45 years later.”
“May 4th Voices” includes memoirs and clips of a variety of people who witnessed the shootings. It presents heavy topics such as loss and suffering, while giving hope that those involved will overcome the tragedy they have witnessed.
“There’s three sides to every issue,” Auld says. “There’s yours, theirs and there’s the truth. If you only heard one from one side, from politics to the current political spectrum to social issues to the weather—even the most mundane—you’re only hearing one perspective. You’re not hearing the truth.”
In late March, the cast visited the May 4 Memorial at the Kent campus. Cast member Sarah Spies says when she visited the memorial she saw some of the excerpts from the Oral History Project displayed on the walls. Spies saw two of her lines on the walls of the memorial.
“What was nice about going up there is that we had something tangible to put to the words we’re saying,” says Spies, a senior English major. “I have a better understanding on how it impacted our history as a university and as a country. It made it feel a lot more real, and it let the impact of the words that we say sink in a little bit.”
It is not the kind of play a person goes to simply for entertainment. Those who leave after watching “May 4th Voices” will learn something about the history of Kent State and those involved, Auld says.
Auld says there’s hope and humanity within the words of the play. “There’s a bit of hope. There’s a bit of peace. There’s a little bit of reconciliation,” he says. Above all, Auld says he hopes those who come to see the production will leave with inspiration in knowing the world can change, and through learning and experience, tragedies such as May 4 can be prevented in the future.
“Four people were killed,” Auld says. “Thirteen people were shot. Twenty-eight guardsmen fired 67 bullets in 13 seconds. That many rounds were fired that fast—the world changed that fast. That can’t be overlooked.”