Let me tell you the real story. What REALLY happened at the Battle of Lake Erie. Actually, I would love to do just that, but I can’t since I wasn’t around way back then. But Oliver Hazard Perry can, and that’s exactly what the heroic commodore did last Tuesday night as Perry himself, portrayed by scholar Jeremy Meier, took the stage under a giant red-and-white tent in downtown Warren and told of the tales of his adventures on the water. Dressed in the costume of Perry’s U.S. Navy uniform, Meier walked as Perry and talked as Perry, recounting the incident which many believe won the western frontier of Ohio for America. Perry spoke of the betrayal and intrigue surrounding the event with all the diplomacy and discretion expected of a well-to-do officer and entertained a crowd of over seven hundred spectators – in the lawn space of a tent that holds five hundred – with the harrowing account of defending his squadron of ships from the formidable enemy that was the British.
Taking the audience specifically through the events leading up to 10 September 1813, Meier as Perry explained the challenges of creating a squadron from scratch, including the logistics of preparing the vessels with all the necessary materials by first finding expert carpenters and other specialty workers and then exercising the patience to wait for the building bits and pieces that needed to be shipped in from elsewhere so the builders could build, and THEN recruiting an able-bodied crew to fight on these future ships. All this illustrated his point that despite the popular, uneducated view of seemingly instant attack plans, “Nothing happens suddenly.” But this segment was just an hors d’oeuvre of sorts before the truly engaging story was told: that of the battle itself. Dotted with sobering facts such as “most of the men in the squadron had never learned to swim, so the idea of only being injured was of no comfort to them” and Perry’s eventual acceptance of the need to abandon his flagship for his second-in-command despite the motto he adopted from his mentor and friend Captain Lawrence of “Don’t give up the ship!” Meier didn’t simply present a story for the audience to enjoy, rather he brought the spectators along for the journey, throwing them right in the middle of the action and inviting them to verbally stand watch on his ship, as if they were not audience members observing from the relative safety of the 21st century, but crew members serving at the commodore’s elbow. Success becomes equally his and ours as the conclusion reveals that the entire British squadron was captured on the lake.
On the opening night of the last stop for this year’s Ohio Chautauqua tour, the tent space was indeed standing room only, with dozens of visitors bringing their own camp chairs and watching from the lawn just outside the canopy. The reception for the rest of the week’s events was just as impressive, with each workshop and living history performance drawing crowds from all over Trumbull County and beyond.
Each day during the week provided an opportunity for a rotating schedule of youth workshops and adult workshops featuring one of the five scholars. Each evening performance followed the same format as one of the very capable scholars took the stage in full costume for a character monologue, relaying a selection of stories from his or her life. Then the character answered questions from the audience, inviting an even more intimate glimpse into life on Ohio’s frontier. Thirdly, the scholar was finally permitted to step out of character and answer questions that perhaps his or her historical counterpart would not have been willing to answer.
The 2012 theme “When Ohio Was the Western Frontier” brought to life characters and stories of the earliest days of our state: when Ohio truly was the furthermost point of America.In addition to Meier’s portrayal of Oliver Hazard Perry, the other scholars featured were Hank Fincken as Johnny Appleseed (not Johnny Peachpit!); Debra Conner as European aristocrat Margaret Blennerhassett; Marvin Jefferson as York, the slave and body-servant of William Clark (yes, of the famed Lewis & Clark expedition); and Dan Cutler as Chief John Logan, a Native American who befriended “the whites” but did not hesitate to unbury the hatchet when it was needed.
When Oliver Hazard Perry took the stage, he introduced himself as “an avid reader, traveler, and believer in self-education.” The talented scholars of Ohio Chautauqua 2012 seem to all fit that description perfectly, and anyone who had the opportunity to attend one of the final performances of this year’s amazing tour is certainly more well-read, well-traveled, and a little bit smarter because of it.