July 10, 2003


Members of the cast of the new theatrical piece on Yellow Springs’ history, gathered at the Horace Mann statute in the South Glen. The play will be performed Thursday–Saturday, July 17–19, at the Antioch Amphitheater.


Theater piece brings life to Yellow Springs history

Next week local residents can witness the first settler of Yellow Springs, Lewis Davis, purchase land by the spring in 1803. They can watch an elegant mid-19th century party hosted by town founder William Mills as well as a dance by the “free love” society that settled in the Glen in the late 1800s.

Villagers can share the tension of turn-of-the-century Yellow Springers as they race to put out a raging fire and look on as residents in the 1960s call for the desegregation of a local barber shop. They can witness local historical figures Horace Mann, Wheeling Gaunt, Hugh Taylor Birch and Lucy and Arthur Morgan as they come back to life.

These scenes and more comprise the outdoor summer theatrical and dance piece, The Peculiarly Salubrious, Singular and Curious, Mildly Outrageous and Sometimes Lugubrious History of a Natural Springs and the Community That Grew Up Around It, which will be presented Thursday–Saturday, July 17–19, at 8:30 p.m., at the Antioch College Amphitheater. In case of rain, an additional performance will take place on Sunday, July 20, at 8:30 p.m.

“We hope people’s minds are expanded about what’s possible because of what was possible in the past,” said Louise Smith, who wrote and directed the play. “We want people to walk away from the play feeling and thinking.”

About 20 village adults, Antioch College students, high school students and children make up the cast, including Howard Shook as Arthur Morgan, Valerie Blackwell-Truitt, Flo Lorenz, Judy Hempfling, Aurelia Blake, Shirley Martin and Sharon Perry.

The piece, described by Smith as a “patchwork” of 14 scenes, is choreographed by Jill Becker with set design and visual elements by Helen Richardson. The play will include giant puppets by Beth Holyoke, video sequences by Joe Kennedy, music by Mitzi Manny and Marybeth Burkholder and photographs by Irwin Inman. Set construction is by Adrian Davidson.

Throughout the play runs the image of water which, Smith said, serves as a metaphor of “things flowing forth — always changing but always constant.” Researching Yellow Springs history, Smith said, she was struck by the constancy in the town’s history of “certain values — innovation, inclusion, a high regard for nature — those ideas have existed from the beginning in the village.”

Of course, the town’s “negatives” showed up in her research too, Smith said, including “a rampant idealism, the kind that doesn’t always translate into reality.”

Smith tried to include in her play both the town’s successes and its struggles, aiming for the complexity of real life rather than a whitewashed version of history.

“I can’t stand the ingratiating Disneyfied sense of history,” she said. “We tried not to glance over the important things. We tried to pose questions, raise issues, not sweeten it too much.”

Still, she said, “There’s a lot of sweetness in the play. It’s a celebration of what’s here.”

The finished piece is a “layered collaboration on many levels,” Smith said. She and Becker, who teaches dance at Antioch College, collaborated on the play’s movements, with Smith indicating places in the play for dance to illuminate character, and Becker choreographing the dances. Finished pieces include dancing scientists in lab coats, a contradance, an “Isadora Duncanesque” tribute to the Free Love Community of the 1850s and a tribute to the Yellow Springs News, in which newspapers are used as percussion instruments.

“All the theater I’ve done included dance as a kind of language,” Smith said.

Seeking community input in the play’s creation, Smith also collaborated with Yellow Springs residents. She worked on the script with Kay Reimers and Dee Krieg, who answered an ad asking for interested persons to help write. Reimers brought to the collaboration a helpful knowledge of dramatic structure and dialogue, Smith said, and Kreig contributed her own remembrance of local history along with her sense of humor.

For research, Smith turned to the Yellow Springs Historical Society and Antiochiana, the Antioch University archives. She compiled the script from newspaper articles, historical documents and interviews, along with quotes from villagers.

Over and over, Smith said, she was reminded that history is, ultimately, subjective, with as many viewpoints on an event as people involved.

“What’s interesting about history is it’s up for grabs,” she said. “You can only take a stab at it.”

Louise Smith took her best stab at Yellow Springs history, and villagers can now come together to relive some of the town’s defining moments.

“It’s an experiment,” Smith said, of the play. “We’re trying to articulate what our town is about. We want to make people think some and feel good.”

—Diane Chiddister