If you ever wondered how average people living in Indianapolis were affected the night that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, there is no better vehicle than the play “April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream” to discover what the experience might have been like. Written by playwright-in-residence James Still, the drama, which opened Friday, is receiving its world premiere at Indiana Repertory Theatre’s Upperstage. The production continues through November 15.
The night that King was killed in Memphis holds a special significance for Indianapolis because Robert F. Kennedy, who himself was assassinated later that year, happened to be in the city that same day. He was in town to campaign during the democratic presidential primaries held that spring. Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech at an inner-city rally but was encouraged to forgo it for his own safety. Not only did Kennedy ignore the warnings but he went on to give a five-minute long improvised speech that has become famous for its powerful and eloquent call for unity. The speech, which was essentially an announcement of King’s death and a plea for peace, was delivered to a crowd gathered near the corner of 17th and Broadway. The historic spot is near what is now known as the Kennedy King Park. There, one can see a memorial sculpture called The Landmark for Peace, depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy reaching out to each other.
Stills, who drew from interviews he and other IRT staff members conducted with Indy residents who were in the park that night or were close to those who were, created a fictional African American family named Fields, around whom the play revolves. It’s through their eyes that the story of that pivotal night’s events is told.
Like many of the high school and college Kennedy supporters present when he spoke that night, spirited and assertive 16-year-old Geneva Fields (Christina D. Harper), who has undergone a political and social conscience upbringing like her peers, is compelled to attend the rally. It’s because of Geneva’s activism and resulting empowerment that her loving, hard-working parents John Henry, a musician (James T. Alfred), and Addie, a maid (Tracy N. Bonner), begin to question their own attitudes and beliefs regarding their places in the status quo.
Illustrating the multigenerational impact that King’s death had on members of the black community is the Fields wise and precocious elderly landlord and neighbor Miss Davine (Cathy Simpson).
On the other end of the generation spectrum is the family’s sweet, inquisitive younger daughter Johnna Rose (Nia Simmons) taking it all in.
Providing the perspective of white youth who looked to Kennedy to end the Vietnam War is I.U. student Mike (Nick Vidal), who is invited by the Fields to their home after he is left stranded at the rally. Later, the family gives him a ride back to Bloomington in the middle of the night. This addition of Mike’s character to the story makes for an interesting subplot, but the situation seemed contrived and far-fetched.
Serving literally as the voice of the era was Michael Keck, who played a DJ for real-life Indy radio station WTLC, spinning records representing music from the era, in a studio ensconced above the set’s main playing area.
IRT associate artistic director Courtney Sales deftly directed Stills’ affirming script, guiding well-cast actors who turned out performances that were uniformly effective.
Particularly well drawn was Simpson’s characterization of nurturing and colorful Miss Davine, the Fields doting neighbor, who having lost her son in war has adopted the family as her own.
Bonner, who was impressive in last season’s IRT production of “What I Learned In Paris,” also shone as Addie, who joins Geneva to volunteer for Kennedy and later accompanies her daughter to the rally—a defining moment which commences her politicization.
Alfred was equally strong as rigid yet gentle parent John Henry, who is skeptical of politics and politicians but as a result of King’s death and Geneva’s influence is forced to re-evaluate his career choice and place in society.
Harper was very appealing as the bright, idealistic, strong-willed Geneva, who yearns for societal change and is fearless and dedicated in her pursuit of it.
Russel Metheny’s set, Samantha Jones costumes, Michael Lincoln’s lighting design and Michael Keck’s music compositions all contributed to recreating a time and place once known as Nap Town, as opposed to the progressive city it has since become.
In addition to its historical significance, made even more interesting because of its numerous local references, “April 4, 1968” also raises questions about issues regarding race, war and politics that are still relevant and timely today. It’s a work that reinforces the power and resiliency of the human spirit to overcome trauma by not giving in to fear and feelings of powerlessness. As far as youthful optimism and the fresh outlook that informs it, as represented by Geneva, the drama is also a reminder to always keep an open mind and resist staying stuck in old ideas.
For information and tickets for “April 4, 1968,” call the Indiana Repertory Theatre Ticket Office at (317) 625-5252 or visit irtlive.org.