Robert Kennedy’s Famous Speech Comes to Life at the IRT

A new play based on the local event debuts October 20.
April 4, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. is killed in Memphis. Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, in Indianapolis to address a mostly black crowd of 2,500, breaks the news of King’s assassination. He speaks briefly and from the heart, invoking his brother’s death and appealing for “love and compassion toward one another.” Riots ravage other cities, but Indy stays calm.

That day affected a generation of local residents and is commemorated with the Landmark for Peace Memorial in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park on the near-north side, the site of Kennedy’s speech. Now the event is also the subject of a play. April 4, 1968 premieres at the Indiana Repertory Theatre on October 20.

Written by IRT playwright-in-residence James Still, the show focuses on a fictional family’s experiences during those hours, an angle informed by dozens of conversations with Hoosiers.

Still began his “community listening” more than four years ago. As with other shows he has written about past events, he wanted to bring out the humanity in history. So he filled his notebooks with perspectives from a range of people who attended the speech or who could tell him about local life in 1968, from former WTLC DJs to elected officials. He interviewed more than 50 people in all, often commuting from his home in Los Angeles to speak with them in person. The conversations were emotional and useful. “Every interview gave me something,” Still says. “Some of it I could articulate, and some of it was a feeling.” Many of his interviewees were in high school or college 47 years ago, grappling with what the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam War would mean for their lives. That fact led Still to make one of his characters a 16-year-old girl attending Shortridge High School.

Real life was Still’s inspiration, but the play’s characters and plot were products of his imagination. “Another writer could’ve gone through the same experience and had the same thousands of pages and written a completely different play,” he says. “That’s what’s personal about it for me.”

The play arrives during a renewed national dialogue about race due to the recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Still hopes the work will spur even more conversations. And as one of his interviewees points out, many Indy residents might not know about that day long ago. Eunice Trotter was a teen when she attended Kennedy’s speech, standing with other members of her youth program and wearing a jacket with a Black Power fist on the back. Her home was just a few blocks from the park. Now deep into her career as a journalist, communications specialist, and advocate for recognizing African-American history, she lives in the neighborhood again. “The park isn’t in the best of conditions,” Trotter says. “But there’s a marker there, and this play is going to only help attract more attention to that history.”