Kent Historical Society President Sandy Halem launched the Kent State Shootings Oral History Project more than 23 years ago to give voice to individuals impacted by the events of May 4, 1970, at the university.
Thursday, locals will have an opportunity to catch the premiere of a film that is a direct result of those decades-long efforts.
"May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970," a film inspired by more than 100 first-person narratives collected through the Oral History Project, premieres at a free screening 7 p.m. Thursday at the Kent Stage, 175 E. Main St. It is written by David Hassler, director of Kent State University's Wick Poetry Center.
The film, directed by KSU theater instructor Katherine Burke, is based on a play of the same name that originally premiered in May 2010 for the 40th May 4 commemoration.
The first play in 2010 was funded through a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council. A second grant from the OHC paid for the production, filming and dissemination of a subsequent production and other resources.
Hassler poured through 115 interviews from a wide spectrum of individuals totaling more than 1,200 pages of dialogue to craft the play, which weaves together various accounts into a production that recants the story of May 4, 1970, from a variety of vantage points.
"After finding this vein of precious clay, I began working with the raw material of these actual interviews and wove the voices together anonymously to retell the story of May 4th," Hassler said, noting how the anonymity of the speakers enables a the listener to focus on the comments and not the person.
The 110-minute film is a reproduction of the 2010 play. The last 10 minutes includes interviews with individuals like Hassler who brought the piece to fruition.
The KSU Press is also releasing the "May 4th Voices: Kent State, 1970: A Play" book, teacher's resource booklet and DVD in conjunction with the film, which will also air on Western Reserve PBS on May 3, 5 and 6.
Halem said she considers the Oral History Project, which is an ongoing effort to document the accounts of anyone with an opinion on May 4, 1970, and how it affected them, a "great puzzle."
"Each person who gives me a story put another little part of that puzzle together," she said.
The film, Halem noted, is a prime example of those puzzle pieces coming together in a way that provides a unique understanding of the day's events.
"David's play is exactly what I hoped would become part of the legacy of this oral history," Halem said.
Hassler and Halem stressed the significance of hearing the stories and not just reading about them. That, Halem said, was a driving motivation behind having the interviews, which are kept in the KSU Library's special collections and archives, posted in their entirety online. The interviews are accessible at www.library.kent.edu/page/13894.
Halem noted how many individuals who have shared their thoughts with her have broken down in tears as they remember the sights and sounds of the day's violence and chaos.
"Reading it on the printed page is not the same," Halem said. "Here, you have a moment frozen in time. And this play helps you see that range of emotion so you, too, can find yourself in that play."
"Through these intimate human voices, the play ends up finding that small patch of common ground on which we can stand together with each other and actually listen and respond to each other in a real dialogue," Hassler said. "You begin to empathize with these people's life stories, and it changes how you hear them and how you perceives them."
Halem said she hopes the film will encourage others to come forward and share their own May 4 stories. The Oral History Project, she said, will continue as long as there are stories left to tell.
And everyone around for May 4, 1970, she said, has a story or opinions worth sharing.
"This won't be the last thing to come out of the May 4th oral history, and it certainly isn't the first," Halem said. "But it creates the same sense of letting us understand each other and make a safe place to hear one another. And maybe when you leave the theater after watching this program, maybe you'll have a little better understanding of the total package."
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