“The Wave” Brings Warning to Bay Street Theater

Jon Kovach performing “The Wave” at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Photo by Zach Cieslak.
Jon Kovach performing “The Wave” at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. Photo by Zach Cieslak.

By Annette Hinkle

In 1967, Ron Jones, a history teacher at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, California, embarked on an in-class social experiment to demonstrate the ease with which totalitarianism can take hold in society.

It involved his 15-year-old contemporary world history students and their study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Though intended to be a one-day lesson in tyranny, the experiment, which came to be known as “The Third Wave” quickly evolved into an actual movement that went far beyond everyone’s expectations and control — including the teacher’s.

This weekend, Bay Street Theater presents “The Wave,” an original one-man theatrical production by writer and actor John Kovach and based on Ron Jones first hand narrative of the event.

Though he grew up in Ohio, Mr. Kovach is no stranger to Bay Street, having performed in the theater’s 2015 Literature Live! production for young audiences of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” He feels this show, too, is ideal for teens in that it explores a concept found not only in school curriculums, but more increasingly in the wider world as well.

Jon Kovach with Mark Hancock at a performance of “The Wave” at The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Mark is one of the students who took part in Ron’s actual movement of The Wave in 1967. Photo by Zach Cieslak

Mr. Kovach first presented his piece publicly in 2013 at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Back then, he says, “The Wave” was a work firmly rooted in history — designed to offer a vivid demonstration of how extreme ideals took hold in the minds of German citizens during the Nazi regime.

“Then I kind of put it to bed. I felt its time had passed,” he says.

But as the political and social climate began to resemble its current state, Mr. Kovach felt it was time to revive the piece.

“So I rewrote and revamped it for Bay Street,” he adds.

One of Mr. Kovach’s primary goals in reworking “The Wave” is to show how fascist regimes can rise, not only in a historical context, but in current times as well. Though there have been countless retellings of Ron Jones’ story in print and on-screen both here and abroad (it is required reading for students in Germany and Israel), the tale is often altered or changed in the process.

Mr. Kovach’s intent was to be as true as possible to the facts of the story, which is why he sought out Ron Jones’ original source material for his script.

“What makes this one so unique is it goes back to the essay,” explains Mr. Kovach. “Ron gave me the essay, his poetry and storytelling he did at the time, and I used all of that to create this production.”

Though the goal of Ron Jones’ lesson in 1967 was to deter his students from the allure of totalitarianism, in truth, it had the exact opposite effect. His one day experiment gained a life of its own and within five days, a “fascist state” had been created on campus, complete with hallway salutes, banners, Gestapo-like informants, and even a small resistance movement.

And it wasn’t limited to Mr. Jones’ students. By week’s end, more than 200 students were jamming into his classroom, some from other schools, all eager to be part of “The Wave.”

It may have had something to do with the times. In 1967, like now, there was an unwanted war going on and the possibility of being drafted loomed large for teens. In addition, the black power movement was gaining traction and the dynamics between race and politics was tenuous and palpable. For many students, “The Wave” was a tool for defining power, especially for those who felt they had none.

Mr. Jones still lives in California, and in a recent interview with the Express, he described how the experiment began and how it quickly morphed into a movement beyond his control.

“Day one was a planned lesson on discipline. I said that athletes and ballet dancers have discipline, but our students don’t practice it in our schools,” recalls Mr. Jones. “So I had them leave and re-enter the classroom in an orderly fashion to demonstrate the power of discipline. I had them chanting and sitting in a disciplined position.”

Jon Kovach performing “The Wave” at The Cincinnati Fringe Festival ’13. Photo by Jeff Burkle.

“I thought that would be enough to launch a discussion on what it would feel like to be in a fascist society,” says Mr. Jones.

But he was wrong.

“When I came in on Tuesday, they had put themselves in the same positions I had left them in on Monday with zipper-like smiles on their faces,” explains Mr. Jones who did not have a second lesson planned, so made it up as he went along.

“Instinctually, what comes next in totalitarianism is the idea of community and being part of something bigger than one’s self,” he says. “It’s about movements and causes, building barns together. But it’s also about membership cards and salutes, and those came spontaneously.”

The biggest change Mr. Jones noticed in his students during the course of the week was not in the academically driven kids in the front of the class, nor the rebels cutting up in the back — but those in the middle, both literally and figuratively.

“These kids were the ‘not quite B’ crowd. They’re the invisible ones, in a way,” he explains. “I surely see that unwanted or under recognized group now being part of history to make America great.”

Before the week was out, “The Wave” had instilled rules, adherents, informants and even spies. Those who were caught speaking ill of the movement were publicly shamed, and he notes that even humor was attacked.

And like many fascist regimes throughout history, the media was made into the enemy. Years later, Mr. Jones learned from a former student that members of the school’s press were beat up to eliminate reporting of the story.

But perhaps the most surprising and disturbing element of the whole saga is the fact that Mr. Jones himself was swept up in his own imaginary movement.

“Sadly, by the third day I fell victim to my own experiment,” he says. “I remember a student followed me into the teacher’s lounge and when someone said he wasn’t allowed in there, he said ‘I’m not a student. I’m a body guard.’”

“I knew that child had crossed the invisible line,” he adds. “I knew I was crossing the same line, because I liked the order, the discipline and the adulation… I’m the Hitler, the Stalin … I’m the Trump.”

The other thing that stunned Mr. Jones was the paranoia that crept into his being.

“I was fearing I might lose control because the students wanted to take it in a different direction. That forced me to think I have to end this before someone gets hurt,” he says.

Though Mr. Jones waited for the administration to step in and stop the experiment, it didn’t happen.

“In the back of my mind, I had the hope in the first day or two that the principal or a parent would walk in and say ‘What are you doing?’” says Mr. Jones. “That someone never appeared. I kept hoping that would happen. I couldn’t believe the principal was giving The Wave to others.”

“That’s why it’s you, the press, that has to do the questioning,” he adds.

In the end, Mr. Jones killed the movement himself, by holding an assembly in which he admitted it had all been an experiment. Some of the students were angry and sad. Others claimed that they knew all along it was a hoax.

But the message was clear.

“I think the dynamics apply to all of us — not just 15 year olds who want some uniqueness,” says Mr. Jones. “We all want to belong to something and be part of history and take destiny into our hands.”

“Finally, I think we all want to feel superior to someone else. We’ll give up freedom to be part of something in the end,” he says. “What you unleash — that’s what’s frightening.”

“The Wave” runs Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8 at Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Friday, and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are $20 to $45. The performances include a post-show talkback with co-authors Jon Kovach and Ron Jones. For more information, contact the Bay Street box office at (631) 725-9500.