Current images of protesters filling the streets recall earlier eras of dissent, namely the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, and second-wave feminists flooded the streets with people determined to change civil discourse. Since the Women’s March of January 2017, recorded as one of the largest global protests in recent history, the time is ripe to reflect upon feminism past and present, and think about how far we have come, or not, and where we still need to go.
Theater director Meghan Finn (The Offending Gesture, Doomocracy) has been wrestling with this question for some time, and her latest project, in collaboration with playwright Julia May Jonas (Emily Climbs, Evelyn) and composer Brian Cavanagh-Strong (Saints Rest, A Gardener), fearlessly attacks it head on. Michigan Murders delves into the dark looming shadows cast across a Midwestern college town in 1966 – 69 when several young women were brutally beaten, raped, murdered, and dismembered by a savage killer. In her characteristically dry delivery, Finn matter-of-factly states: “Misogyny is insidious and inescapable. It doesn’t matter how far you run, its tentacles will take you down.” Sadly, women everywhere can identify with this remark. We all know what it means to be hunted.
No one feels this more acutely that college women, who appropriately comprise the large cast of Michigan Murders. The play will receive its university premiere this spring at Montclair State in the Fox Theatre as part of the institution’s artist-in-residence program, New Works Initiative (NWI). Designed to pair professional artists with student actors and designers, NWI seeks to deepen the training of students, giving them a glimpse into the process of play development, while supporting the next generation of theater artists. Heather Benton, Program Coordinator for the BFA Program in Acting and NWI Committee Member, believes that working on a new play enriches actor training because students “go through the process of trying text and then receiving rewrites and discover how to unearth a character’s arc in this process. New play development also encourages a more intimate collaboration between a writer, director, and actor because the form itself is changing and morphing in process.”
Based on actual events, Michigan Murders departs from previous renderings (a book entitled Terror in Ypsilanti: John Norman Collins Unmasked chronicles the case, for example) because it focuses on women—both those attacked and those who lived under the specter of fear for the years the killer was on the loose—rather than the killer and his motives. The decision to re-center the plot on the lives of the young women of Eastern Michigan University no doubt comes from Finn’s personal attachment to this chilling story. She recalls: “A few years ago my mom mentioned in passing that she went to school with a serial killer” at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Finn held on to the idea of a character like her mother looking back at herself during her formative years, but she didn’t really know where to go with it. Then she and Jonas met, as new mothers in the same Ditmas Park neighborhood, and their bond over motherhood grew into inspiration for an Audrey Residency with New Georges Theatre in Manhattan. Finn wanted to explore her own mother’s youth set against a time when second-wave feminism was crashing on the shores of college campuses all over the country, but living, as Finn vividly describes, “palpably close to this scary stranger of death.”
Scary strangers. And sometimes familiar faces. One in five women are sexually assaulted while attending college, and rape culture is as prescient an issue today as it was back in 1967 when Finn’s mother attended EMU as an art student. The man who was eventually convicted of one, but not all, of the murders was also a student at EMU. He and Finn’s mother were in the same social circles; he and Finn’s would-be father were both in "close" fraternities, the Arm of Honor and Theta Chi, respectively. Finn relates that the “Arm” was a “classically lowlife bunch,” known for raucous ragers where young coeds and brothers would dance the night away.
It is against this bacchanalian scene of new sexual freedom that Finn and Jonas begin their juxtaposition: young women experiencing liberation while at the same time not feeling safe to walk home alone; trying to experience personal awakening amidst the periodic disappearance and eventual, gruesome discovery of their classmates’ dismembered bodies; managing to laugh, fall in love, make friends, and grow, while knowing that at any time they could be next.
The piece collages Renaissance music with ’60s pop, and puts moments of implied menace amidst fun college party scenes. However, the killer is never mentioned by name. “I became adamant about erasing [him] from the story and taking away his presence,” explains playwright Jonas. In doing so, the unseen terror is at once everywhere and nowhere, acutely capturing the hovering blade of
In an early scene, the coeds find themselves in a mandatory social dancing class as the news of the latest murder takes hold on their imaginations. As the music lightly picks up the feet of the dancers, dark thoughts swirl in their minds. The choreography and music offer an unsettling counterpoint to the words.
My roommate said her sister is hysterical.
My roommate said her sister was supposed to meet her at the lake
But they missed each other.
My roommate said that Mary hated her roommate’s boyfriend?
She was trying to avoid him so she went for a walk.
I did that last night. Her (gesturing to MARALYNN) boyfriend has an inferiority complex.
He’s shy maybe.
Well what am I supposed to do about that?—he sits there and looks at me.
Is he that guy who wears the top hat?
That guy looks at me.
That guy is such a creep—he walked by our window—we saw him standing outside the window and he saw us
(The room freezes.)
She had her period.
She might have been raped.
She was stabbed twenty times.
The killer sawed her hands and feet off.
Inverting the true crime narrative, by de-emphasizing the killer and refocusing on the life of the victims, informs how the music supports the story. Throughout the play, three male back-up singers, called The Lakeside Lovers comment on the action as it happens. “I feel like I always see trios of women supporting a story, and I wanted to put men in that position,” says Jonas. The trio provides a stark musical contrast with the female-driven dialogue, but both Jonas and Cavanagh-Strong are careful to say that the piece is a play with music, rather than a traditional musical. “I think the music is textural presence,” comments Cavanagh-Strong. “Julia’s impulses drove our exploration,” but “we’ve met each other halfway.”
Cavanagh-Strong and Jonas both share a love for madrigals, a Renaissance choral form, often unaccompanied, for several voices. (Cavanagh-Strong admits he is “obsessed.”) It is a texture that weaves in and out of the Michigan Murders. Jonas explains, the style is “something out of time, timeless. The same way that violence against women is also timeless.” (Ah misogyny, you old classic!) Jonas’s intricate meditation on memory swerves between memories of the ’60s with memories of Medieval Europe with memories of Ancient Rome, and it is the music that creates the pathway through these imagined places. “In the pieces that I am making,” says Jonas, “I like to think of them choreographically. Music functions to shift tone and rhythm.”
Working with college students on a play about college students has made conversations in rehearsal particularly resonant. Finn describes: “A lot of rehearsals are just the ladies. It is very empowering to see these women connect their art to their lives, it makes it particularly fulfilling.” Theater forces those making it to draw from personal experience in order to connect to the audience through the story, as a way to understand self through the refraction of art. In the making of Michigan Murders, it dawned on Finn that it wasn’t just her mother’s experience she was unpacking, but also her own. “I didn’t realize until after I had started Michigan Murders how much it connected to my own past,” Finn tells me. “I had a friend who was murdered at twenty. It became a huge media story, and one of things that was so upsetting was that her personality, her humanity was robbed from her. Murder is the ultimate objectification. That’s what we are trying to do here, we are trying to move them [the female victims] back into subjects.” Subjects tell stories and move about the world, rather than just having things done to them. Subjects become agents of change.
Michigan Murders, created by Meghan Finn, Julia May Jonas, and composer Brian Cavanagh-Strong runs March 23 – 24 at 7:30 p.m., March 25 at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and March 26 at 2:00 p.m. at Montclair State University’s L. Howard Fox Studio Theatre.