By Carol South
Special to the Record-Eagle
ELK RAPIDS — Although Dec. 7 is an iconic date in American history, few realize that the following day in 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the Philippines.
The bombings and landing of ground troops forced the withdrawal of American and Philippine forces to the Bataan Peninsula and a nearby island. Surrender that spring was followed by the infamous Bataan Death March, a trek of documented brutality, privation and death.
Reviving a slice of history, students at Elk Rapids High School will present the radio play "Lifelines" in early December.
"Lifelines" sprang from a book of the same name featuring poems written by Terry Wooten based on interviews with World War II veteran Jack Miller. Miller served in the Pacific theater and the 82 poems detail his experiences in the death march. The poems also cover his time behind enemy lines and subsequent surrender to the Japanese as well as time in a prisoner of war camp in Japan.
About seven years ago, Elk Rapids High School English teacher Lin Opgenorth turned Wooten's poems into a script. The play featuring student actors was presented at the school to sell-out audiences in 2003.
This fall, a new cast of Elk Rapids students have been mastering the intense lines, this time for presentation on IPR News radio Dec. 4. Meeting after school twice a week, the cast of seven have been rehearsing for a month. They will record the play later this month in Interlochen studios.
Presenting living history melds with the station's mission, noted News Director Peter Payette.
"For a station like ours that's owned by an arts institution, the community aspect of it along with the folk art involved with these oral histories, this project is kind of a bulls-eye for us," he said. "This is a dramatic performance written by a well-known local poet so that lends credibility right out of the gate."
The extra-curricular project has captivated students, who besides mastering lines are refining details and pronunciation to boost authenticity.
"It's interesting to hear the story and hear history on a more personal level — I think it's really powerful," said Jessie Ventzke, a sophomore who, along with two other female participants, presents the perspective of Jack Miller's wife, Leda, who thought her husband dead and then faced a challenging reconciliation after the war.
"You really get to experience it from a personal point of view: all the hard things that they had to go through over there that you don't learn from a textbook," said Daniel Barlin, a senior.
Senior Devin Doherty, a self-described history buff, will be one of four male voices in this radio show, all representing Miller.
"Each actor has a different emotion or a different thinking," he said. "The challenge would be putting enough emphasis into the lines to get the message across and trying to do the person's experience justice on a radio show."
A veteran of multiple stage productions, senior Billy Wolfington is delving into the subtleties instead of memorizing lines or stage directions.
"For me it's more interpreting the meaning behind the lines and the situations the current character is in," he said.
Edtor's note: Poet Bard Terry Wooten contributes a monthly column, Lifelines, to the Traverse City Record-Eagle.