Author took journey of the spirit

WARREN – If some of the stories told during the 2014 Ohio Chautauqua describe physical journeys, then Henry David Thoreau very much embodies the journey of the spirit.

Regarded as one of the greatest writers in American literature, Thoreau’s progressive abolitionist ideas, study of nature and reformist opinions on government have inspired countless people in the more than 150 years since his death.

“My monologue will express the introspective journey and extrospective journey that Thoreau went on,” said Kevin Radaker, who will portray Thoreau during the 2014 Ohio Chautauqua. “My joy as a scholar is to bring more of his texts to people and show people that Thoreau was more complex than the person that people may be aware of.”

Warren is among the four communities to host the program this year, which is sponsored by Ohio Humanities. The event features daytime workshops for adults and children, and nightly presentations. The theme of this year’s program is “Journey Stories.”

On each of the five evenings, a scholar dressed in full costume will portray a featured character and interact with the audience. There will also be a question-and-answer period at the end of each performance.

This year’s historic characters also include Martin Luther King Jr., Olive Ann Oatman, J.G. Bruff and Edith Russell.

Thoreau is most famous for his manual on independence and spiritual discovery “Walden,” which sought to understand society through personal introspection, simple living and self-sufficiency.

But the Thoreau that Radaker will portray comes from 1860, a time that saw Thoreau reacting to John Brown’s historic raid on Harpers Ferry just one year previous. A white abolitionist, Brown had attempted to start an armed slave revolt in 1859 by seizing a United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.

“A Plea for Captain John Brown” was penned by Thoreau just two weeks after the raid, and in stark opposition to the view of the time, Thoreau championed Brown and saw him as a brave man who had embraced a cause that was just.

“Thoreau was the first transcendentalist who loudly protested those who saw Brown as an insane, zealous and crazy man,” Radaker said. “Thoreau had met Brown and was quite impressed with his ‘stiff back,’ so to speak. He was a man who was insistent on the principles that he was convinced were truth.”

Thoreau played a role in the development of another Ohio Chautauqua figure, as Martin Luther King Jr. was influenced by his work “Civil Disobedience” and Thoreau’s thoughts on how to stand against a government that was viewed as corrupt.

Radaker said that having the opportunity to work alongside fellow scholar Marvin Jefferson, who will be portraying King during Ohio Chautauqua, is an exciting opportunity to draw a connection between two of the most influential thinkers in American history.

“I’ve never been on a tour with Dr. King before, so it will be a very nice first for me,” Radaker said. “Dr. King was not a scholar of Thoreau, but he understands him enough to understand his principals, and that is what I hope that (Radaker and Jefferson) can bring out. There is this line of influence throughout American history, and you can draw a direct line between Thoreau and Dr. King.”

Ohio Chautauqua is also a homecoming of sorts for Radaker, who spent much of his teen years in the Warren area. Radaker attended Western Reserve High School from 1971 to 1973, before graduating from Newton Falls High School in 1974. Radaker said his parents still live in Newton Falls, so he makes yearly returns to the area to visit family.

“I know the Warren area very well, so it will be nice to return (as a performer),” Radaker said. “I actually can’t help but be curious to know if anyone that I went to high school with will be in the audience for Chautauqua.”

Ohio Chautauqua is sponsored and presented by Ohio Humanities. It is hosted locally by the Tribune Chronicle and the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library and is in partnership with Trumbull 100 and the Trumbull County Tourism Bureau, with support from the Warren Library Association.