Students take play to state festival
Steve Tarnow remembers it this way: As an eighth-grader on Nov. 22, 1963, he was taking the U.S. Constitution test when he came upon a question so obvious he thought it was stupid:
"If the president dies, who takes over?"
"I remember thinking, 'Who else? The vice president,'" he said.
Later that day, his history teacher quietly walked into Tarnow's classroom at Kansas Grade School in Edgar County, went straight to the chalkboard and wrote:
"The president has been shot in Dallas."
"He left later, came back and told us the president was dead," said Tarnow, now 63 and living in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Classmate Diana (Wright) Ellington, who lives in Kansas, remembers "the history teacher walked in and just sat there. He looked so funny. He was really quiet. He said, 'The president has been assassinated.'
"It was just the look on his face that was so weird."
Fifty years later, a younger generation of students, at St. Joseph-Ogden High School, is relating the two former classmates' and others' recollections in "Remembering 11/22/63."
The play was created by the students and drama director Larry Williams. They first presented the reader's theater-style piece in October.
Judges from the Illinois Theatre Association attended and evaluated the show.
What's more, they selected "Remembering 11/22/63" for two full-length productions at this weekend's Illinois High School Theatre Festival at Illinois State University.
Only eight other schools, among them Mahomet-Seymour, were chosen to present full-length plays at the 39th annual festival, the oldest and largest high school theater festival in the nation.
Trey Ball, an SJ-O senior who takes on three real-life characters — including his own grandfather — in the memory play, called it a great honor because his "little high school" is not as well-known as most of the other schools at the three-day festival, which attracts 4,000 attendees.
"It's just a great experience to be able to do this and represent our school on a state level," Ball said.
In addition to the two upcoming festival shows, which aren't open to the public, SJ-O's students will do an encore of "Remembering 11/23/63" tonight at the school. The proceeds will help pay their costs to the festival in Normal.
Besides the thrill of being chosen to perform at the state event, the students learned a lot from developing "Remembering 11/23/63," according to Williams and Ball.
They began gathering anecdotes from older friends and relatives last May; Ball was surprised at the "tiny details" they remembered.
A veteran drama director who had the idea for the play, Williams put together the student-gathered anecdotes in a 90-minute piece of mainly monologues and vignettes, plus narration.
The 31 cast members perform against a backdrop of 1960s communication devices; at first they couldn't keep their hands off the vintage equipment, their teacher said.
The teenagers also found the project unusual because they share no historic event as their grandparents do, Williams and Ball both said.
"I guess you could say 9/11," Williams said. "But many of those kids were so young at that point they didn't realize what was going on."
If you go
What: St. Joseph-Ogden High School drama students present their original play, "Remembering 11/22/63," directed by Larry Williams.
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 9, 2014).
Where: At the school, 301 N. Main St., St. Joseph.
Admission: Free, with donations taken at the door. Proceeds will help students pay their way to the 39th annual Illinois High School Theatre Festival in Normal.
Also starring ...
Besides SJ-O and Mahomet-Seymour high schools, other local acts in this weekend's Illinois High School Theatre Festival:
Centennial junior Jack Reeder is preacher Jim Casy in the all-state show "Grapes of Wrath."
Champaign Central's Madeline Weglarz-Ward is on the all-state show technical crew.
The High School of St. Thomas More will present "An Evening in the Twilight Zone," one of 11 hourlong showcase productions. (Unlike the full-length plays, the showcases receive no technical support).