History Floods the Stage

See newsroom story and photo gallery here

One hundred years after the natural disaster that changed Dayton, Ohio, forever, Wright State University restaged its celebrated original play 1913: The Great Dayton Flood.

Billed as an “epic parable with gospel blues,” 1913 debuted on the Festival Playhouse stage in 1996. The play with music was based on Allan W. Eckert’s Pulitzer-nominated book Time of Terror: The Great Dayton Flood and was adapted for the stage by W. Stuart McDowell, chair of the Wright State Department of Theatre, Dance,
and Motion Pictures, and then-student Timothy J. Nevits.

Through careful research, McDowell and Nevits added many real-life characters not found in Eckert’s book, particularly African Americans. They added, for example, W. G. Sloan, whose story they discovered in the NCR archives. Sloan saved 375 stranded people in a flat-bottomed boat that he commandeered at gunpoint. They also added Mrs. Stanton, who busts through the roof of her house to escape the rising waters at the end of the play’s first act.

The original production was a resounding success. It was invited to play at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of the 1997 American College Theatre Festival and won a record number of the festival’s awards. Later that year, the show played four sold-out performances at Dayton’s own Victoria Theatre (a historical location where scenes from the play actually took place). The audiences for those performances included several flood survivors.

In addition to the elements that made the first production such a hit—including recorded narration by Martin Sheen, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis—the 2013 incarnation was infused with new material. “We’ve given new life to this great story,” said McDowell.

The new soundtrack included original compositions written by local Dayton artist/musicians Michael and Sandy Bashaw and played on the couple’s unique collection of metal “sound sculptures.” The show featured stirring gospel melodies sung a cappella by the cast. Senior dance major Nikki Wetter created inventive choreography that had actors realistically swirling through invisible waters. In the opening scene, the cast used movement to illustrate the three ominous air masses that fatefully collided in March 1913 to produce that deadly rainfall.

The 21 actors in the cast portrayed more than 150 Daytonians, from famous historical figures like John H. Patterson to obscure—but no less real—individuals like Mildred Young and George McClintock. Once again, the cast dove into intensive research in the Wright State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives. They visited the cemeteries where many of the characters they played are buried and the actual locations where many of the scenes take place.

“When we went downtown and we saw the water lines, that’s when it really hit me, how real this really was,” said senior acting major Cyndii Johnson, who played the aforementioned Mrs. Stanton. “We tried to jump up and touch the lines, but no matter what we did, we couldn’t reach it. That’s when it hit home the hardest.”

“In 1995, shortly before my junior year at Wright State, I was enlisted to assist department chair W. Stuart McDowell with a new play—1913: The Great Dayton Flood. Over the course of a year, Stuart and I dug through countless dusty photographs and news articles, hunted down gravestones, and met with over a dozen eclectic historians and archivists. It was the most amazing experience an aspiring writer could have hoped for.

However, by the end of the year Stuart and I still felt something was missing. So in a Dayton Daily News article we left my phone number asking any 1913 flood survivors out there to call with their stories. We hoped someone would bite.

Returning from my parents’ that weekend, I discovered that my answering machine was full. Not only was it full—but my phone was still ringing from a multitude of octo- and nonagenarians with stories to tell. Fortunately, by then the play had been cast and a small army of student actors, armed with microphones, went out to confer with some of the very people they would
soon portray.

Suddenly, these weren’t characters in a play anymore. These were people. What emerged in the production that fall wasn’t simply the staging of a flood, but a hundred moments of humanity surrounding one. It was a lesson in writing, in theatre, and—most importantly—in life from those who had
really lived it.”

—Timothy J. Nevits

Comments are closed.