Nightwalking: Voices From Kent State

Terrapin Theatre

at the Organic Theater Company Greenhouse, South Hall

There seems to be no limit to the American penchant for self-absorption. Confusing our personal emotional response with the fulfillment of civic duty, we judge the severity of a national catastrophe like the Oklahoma City bombing by how deeply it affects us individually. We wring our hands, bow our heads, and ship off 600 teddy bears to the victims of this domestic terrorism, wondering if a more powerful FBI might be the answer. If the major media are to be believed, the real tragedy of the Oklahoma City bombing is our “loss of innocence” and the ensuing terror, which according to Newsweek has destroyed “the illusion that here at home, we are safe” (an illusion no ethnic minority or homosexual in America has truly harbored any time this century).

Nowhere is this tendency toward solipsism more apparent than in our fumbling attempts to come to terms with the waning years of the Vietnam war. As Ronald E. Yates wrote in last Sunday’s Tribune, “The final siege of Saigon remains as vivid for me today as it was that dark morning 20 years ago, down to the smallest detail. I can still recall how cool the cracked ruby tiles of my room felt as I padded across them and out onto the balcony.” Abigail Foerstner, writing in the Tribune Sunday magazine about the weeklong shutdown of Northwestern’s Evanston campus in response to the killing of four Kent State students 25 years ago, devoted a paragraph or two to the social and political context and focused on the dramatic effect the Kent State tragedy had on the apolitical insularity at Northwestern, an effect she admits “didn’t last beyond spring.” Most of her story is made up of personal interviews with six participants in the events–a professor, a trustee, an administrator, and three students–who primarily discuss how it felt to be involved.

This reduction of sweeping political movements to personal anecdotes, this belief that emotional truth is the only newsworthy truth, is playwright Sandra Perlman’s modus operandi. Her new play, Nightwalking: Voices From Kent State, being given its world premiere by the Terrapin Theatre, attempts to come to terms with the Kent State shootings but instead collapses into sterile, isolated, banal personal stories. Like Foerstner’s series of interviews, Perlman’s characters speak of little beyond their private concerns as they confront a national disgrace.

Perlman’s approach is perfectly appropriate, however, for an oral historian. She created an oral-history project, which she describes as a place where “ordinary people might leave behind their own memories of those turbulent times,” at Kent State five years ago, as part of the 20th anniversary of the shootings. And though I haven’t visited Perlman’s project, I know that this kind of highly personal approach paradoxically can provide a broad historical perspective. Two years ago I happened upon a similar exhibit in the Oshkosh Public Museum, “World War II at Home,” full of personal letters, artifacts, and hundreds of stories from the local newspaper about war casualties. The sheer scope of the installation poignantly demonstrated just how deeply ingrained the war was in every facet of life during those years. Perlman’s relentlessly anecdotal two-hour play never coheres, however. Even though all the characters seem driven by a need to make sense of the tragedy, to understand what led to those infamous 13 seconds of gunfire, there are too few of them and their observations are too limited.

Perlman intercuts the confessions of seven actual witnesses to the Kent State shootings (though she admits in the play’s introduction that “none of these stories is pure fact”) with fictionalized scenes depicting a working-class family torn apart by the campus protests. But too much of the time Perlman’s witnesses–three students, a National Guardsman, a Kent schoolteacher, an anonymous woman, and the young girl pictured sobbing beside a dead student in that famous photograph–recite lots of irrelevant banalities. Like Yates telling us about the chilly tiles under his feet while a nation collapses around him, these characters recount their troubled love lives, commonplace work histories, and strained relations with parents while, in the words of one, the world is coming to an end.

The intent seems to be to let us “get to know” these people, reinforcing the problematic assumption that we must befriend people before we can care about the issues they face. (How often have we heard that AIDS or breast cancer or domestic violence doesn’t seem real until it affects someone we know?) When the witnesses finally speak of the actual events at Kent State, they tend to recount how deeply disturbed, bewildered, even traumatized they were. The feelings may be real–though this amateurish cast has a hard time conveying them–but they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. And frankly, considering the events that took place in America during the Vietnam era and that were brought to a head at Kent State, the tortured emotions of a handful of people seem beside the point. Perlman’s centerpiece fictional family is too sketchy and stereotypical to have much dramatic impact. And the play far oversteps its own modest bounds when Perlman repeatedly compares the father’s inability to accept his son’s antiwar sentiments to Abraham’s obligation to sacrifice Isaac.

Director Jenifer (Gwenne) Weber does little to orchestrate the self-conscious musicality of Perlman’s interspliced voices–and because these voices generally appear without context, attention to Perlman’s rhythms is critical to creating more than a list of disconnected facts. Instead Weber keeps everyone cut off from everyone else. For the most part each actor is lit independently and speaks without regard to the others. When not speaking, the actors stare blankly into the middle distance as though unable to hear or see the others. The characters’ isolation only adds to the play’s insularity, and the resulting sterility precludes any real ensemble energy from developing. The play ends up looking and sounding like a haphazardly edited talking-heads documentary.

Only the African-American character–Kent, a student at the university when the shootings occurred–is able to make sense of the tragedy within a larger context. The white characters seem almost willfully blind to the larger forces behind the shootings, even incredulous that the guardsmen’s rifles were loaded; these are the very people whose lost innocence Newsweek might have lamented 25 years ago, when in fact what they’ve lost (like their contemporaries in Oklahoma City) is their ignorance. But Kent can’t escape the lessons or burdens of history. His family moved from Alabama to Ohio, he tells us, “so I could be smart and still live. Those were the choices my Daddy had in 1966. Some people don’t have those choices now.” His description of the National Guardsmen later is both enigmatic and evocative: “No dogs or hoods or firehoses to threaten but any self-respecting black man knows the Klan didn’t need a gun to kill you and the government did.” The disparity between Kent’s point of view and the perspectives of the other characters seems incidental, however. If Perlman could have dramatized the nascent tension between him and the others, she might have contributed to a broader understanding of one of this country’s most shameful moments.