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On April 4, 1968, a groundbreaking American leader was assassinated.
In reaction, a political candidate from a dynastic family helped send a message of peace and introspection during a stop in Indianapolis.
But there’s more to the story … actually, the stories. Because those events had an impact on ordinary Americans, too.
Rather than focus directly on Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, James Still’s new play “April 4, 1968: Before We Forgot How to Dream” (at the Indiana Repertory Theatre for its world premiere through Nov. 15) is populated by a family well outside the headlines.
High school-age daughter Geneva wants to volunteer for Kennedy. Loving but financially struggling parents John Henry and Addie debate over how much freedom to grant her, while playful daughter Jhonna Rose cartwheels through the house. A WTLC DJ spins period hits. A quirky but wise landlady visits. And our knowledge of what’s soon to happen tempers everything we see. When the inevitable-in-hindsight happens, Still wisely lets Kennedy’s words take over. The result is a moving, beautifully acted and directed sequence that allows layers of pain to register in waves. Christina D. Harper, as Geneva, is particular powerful here and elsewhere.
The play doesn’t seem to quite know where it wants to go once the audience is back from intermission. A “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” reference from the first act inevitably leads to the awkward inclusion of a white college student into the family home. Some of the dialogue—apparently taken from interviews with people who were there that fateful day—feels retrofitted into the mouths of the characters. And there’s not much in the way of drama or surprise—it’s fairly clear early on where the story is going.
That being said, I strongly believe that conversation can be theater’s greatest special effect—provided we care about the people doing the talking.
In a world where so much conversation takes place online—where words are disconnected from the physical reality of the people sharing them—theater is one of the rare places where we can actually witness people talking and being at the same time.
“April 4, 1968” is at its best when it isn’t terribly concerned with plot but, instead, sharing the everyday moments that bind a family. Offering a small story in the midst of a tragedy, it reminds us that we are part of history. And so are our neighbors.●