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Feature

Word of Mouth

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

During the Depression, when a farm was foreclosed in Fulton County, Ohio, the bank held penny auctions. They soon acquired another name--pitchfork auctions.

Neighbors would gather to bid on a cow or a hog or a plow. If an outsider tried to buy something for a bargain, the farmers would surround the interloper and menacingly lean on their pitchforks. “I never heard of any violence,” Henry Zumfeld recalls, “but they sent a message to the outsiders that we are helping this fellow out. We pay seventeen cents possibly for a cow and when the auction is over, the banker takes his total back to the bank, but the farmer who bought the cow for seventeen cents gives it back to the owner and the guy gets to start over. The neighbors would come to the rescue.”

Zumfeld’s story and those of other Ohioans have moved from family lore to oral history collections to the stage. From Here: A Century of Voices from Ohio, a play based on first-person histories, is touring forty communities across Ohio this year as part of the state’s bicentennial celebration. One hundred thousand people are expected to see the play in venues ranging from school auditoriums to the 1844 First Church Meeting House in Oberlin, where Mark Twain and Martin Luther King, Jr. once spoke.

After receiving some eight hundred oral histories from across the state, Rachel Barber, organizer of the Wallpaper Project, saw that the stories could live off the page. By converting them into a drama, the histories could be more accessible to a wide audience. “We wanted to emphasize the personal experience in a way that enlightens us about larger truths,” says Barber.

Cleveland playwright Eric Coble was commissioned to create a play that reflected life in Ohio during the twentieth century. “I wanted the audience to get this simultaneous feel of what it’s like in our town, in our state, and in our world.”

Coble combed through thousands of pages of transcripts and arranged the stories thematically, rather than chronologically, to keep the audience from predicting the plot: Here comes the Depression, here comes World War II, here comes Kent State. As the play travels to each community, Coble replaces about twenty stories from the statewide template with local versions of the same story. “There is this feeling of ‘I remember where that old bridge was,’ or ‘We used to play on that playground too,’ yet given the context of the entire state, you get the feeling of everyone going through this at the same time.”

The Wallpaper project is the theater and personal history initiative based in Auglaize County and supported by the Ohio Humanities Council. Touring directors go to each host community to rehearse with local actors and crew members two weeks prior to the opening performance. For host sites that do not have active theater communities--some do not even have a high school with a drama department--the cast is assembled from local residents who enjoy storytelling. In Brown County the cast included an attorney, a judge, a minister, an artist, and a Civil War Revue Band member.

The simplicity of natural speech is central to the play’s vitality. None of the words of the original storytellers were altered or “dramatized” for the sake of the stage. Barber says, “When people who would not consider themselves important or well-educated speak about events that have affected them profoundly--for the good or the bad--they are quite eloquent.”

In the play Gifford Doxsee remembers a tense time when he was a teacher at Ohio University in 1972. “After the shootings at Kent State, we had demonstrations at Ohio University almost every evening--I would go down to campus in the morning and find bricks on Court Street,” he says. “I would find broken store windows with shattered glass on the sidewalk. I would smell the remnants of tear gas that the police would use driving the students back. It was almost a mini civil war, which was getting more serious night by night.”

“As the play touches on some of the darker elements of the state’s history, such as racism and injustice, the audience has been willing to accept that as part of their past and move through it,” says Coble after attending a recent performance. “There is a certain validation given to people’s history when it is put up on the stage. You thought you were just living your life. We can hold it up, put it in the spotlight, and it is a theatrical event. Your story is and was a dramatic story.”

Laura Wolff Scanlan is a writer in New Berlin, Wisconsin.