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Chautauqua impresses with RFK portrayal

By Michael Harrington • Jun 17, 2019 at 12:00 PM

MILAN — The rain couldn’t stop “the ripples of hope” coming from Ohio Chautauqua’s portrayal of Robert F. Kennedy.

Ohio Humanities yearly tour features actors’ portrayals of historic figures. Milan was the host for this year’s “Modern Legends” tour.

The final night on Saturday featured a reenactment of Kennedy by Jeremy Meier, a professor of theatre and chair of Fine and Performing Arts at Owens Community College.

“Robert Kennedy cautiously entered the realm of politics by advocating for his brother’s campaigns,” Meier said. “He immersed himself into the struggles of the 1960s … and emerged in 1968 as a candidate that advocated for a brighter future. His story is important to look at from historical context to understand the modern world.”

Kennedy was the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy and could have very easily found himself in the Oval Office if it wasn’t for an assassin.

Meier’s performance was framed as a 1968 presidential campaign rally Kennedy was giving to a crowd in Oakland, California, just days before he was killed.

“I grew up in Milan. I came back from Cleveland just to watch this,” Jim Gearhart said. “He was fantastic as Kennedy. It was the best.”

Meier captured Kennedy’s iconic accent and mannerisms as he emulated the feeling of a rally leading to spontaneous applause. He left many people wishing Kennedy was a candidate today.

“It was very interesting for me because I was only 3-years-old when he died,” Milan resident Lori Lewis said.

His performance touched on his childhood in a wealthy family and the belief departed to him by his mother, “to those whom much is given, much is expected.”

After he successfully ran his brother’s 1960 presidential campaign, Robert was appointed attorney general. A move many saw as nepotism, but Robert soon proved he was the man for the job.

He targeted organized crime, including corrupt Teamster Union leader Jimmy Hoffa, more than any of his predecessors. 

Robert was also his brother’s closest advisor counseling him on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement.

He was a committed supporter of the civil rights and became an advocate for both Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez. He gave a famous speech to an Indianapolis crowd after King’s assassination that some say prevented rioting.

After his brother’s assassination, Robert successfully ran for the senate. In 1968, he ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency with the goal of ending the Vietnam War.

Meier answered questions as Robert Kennedy before he stepped out of character at the end to answer any questions outside the scope of Kennedy’s life.

The audience of hundreds under the tent were thrilled with Meier’s performance giving him a standing ovation. They were also thrilled with Chautauqua as a whole.

“I’ve been to all five of them,” Milan resident Don Gfell said. “We look forward to it. All five of the presenters have been unbelievable.”


Could Chautauqua return?

Milan first hosted the event in 2017 and were chosen to host again this year because of the first year’s success, and this year proved to be even more successful.

“We so enjoyed Milan. We knew Milan was going to bring a great crowd, but they shocked us the first night with 433 in attendance,” said Samantha Chase, the Ohio Humanities program coordinator. “It broke the record of what they had the first year.”

Chautauqua changes which historical figures are portrayed every two years. Many throughout the week expressed a desire to see it return in 2021. Milan Township trustee Dan Frederick said it was their hope to get on a two year rotation as host.

“The community is so responsive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard please come back,” Chase said. “We love coming to Milan because history, community interaction and these programs are so important to them and all those three things are what Chautauqua is about.”

When asked if Milan would be a host again, Chase implied the odds were good because of this year’s turnout and support.

“We usually come back to communities that do really well every two years,” Chase said. “So if Milan applies again, I’d say yes.” 

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