Student Playwright John Sherwood Reflects on his life and ‘Ramayana’

By Ian Beabout, Online Editor

West Liberty’s John Sherwood has just finished the inaugural production of his first musical, Ramayana – Past in Present. John composed the libretto and the music for the piece himself, with the help of Drs. Melinda Kreisberg (director), Linda Cowan, Matthew Harder, Gerald Lee, and Professor of Theater, Michael Aulick.

The play has been in rehearsals since mid-summer with the cast and production crew all taking time from their lives to devote to the work.  With no precedent for how Ramayana should be staged, what the community saw over the weekend is a true West Liberty original.

The play is based on ancient Indian scripture, which Sherwood discovered himself while exploring his own faith in India.

“At an early age I became interested in the Vedic philosophy found in the monotheistic traditions of India,” said Sherwood. “After going to India and studying the Vedas I came across the Ramayana, written by the ancient sage, Valmiki Muni, whom many Indians consider to be the father of Sanskrit poetry. The story captivated me, especially because I felt it mirrored events in my own life.”

The story of the Ramayana, or the journey of King Ram, was passed down through an oral tradition by way of twin brothers named Kush and Lava. Up until the age of 16, both boys thought the sage Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana, was their father. One day the boys found out that in fact, King Ram was their true father and were instructed to go to Ram’s palace to sing him the story of his life. The story told by the Hilltop Players followed Ram’s (John Heisman) exile from his kingdom and his battle with a powerful demon, Ravana (played by Alex Gordon).

“In my own life up until the age of fifteen I thought someone was my father,” Sherwood said in a previous article. “Shortly after my sixteenth birthday I was told that person is not my father. This event altered the course of my life.  I absorbed myself in the study and practice of Bhakti-yoga and the Vedas, which include the Ramayana.”

“Two years ago I found out whom my father actually is through a DNA test and that he was still alive,” Sherwood said. “I was reunited with him and we felt a similar joy King Ram and his sons must have felt many, many eons ago. My father passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 94. I was proud of him and he was proud of me.”

“Though my father felt he was theologically opposed to my spiritual path we both shared a genuine, mutual respect and love for each other that transcended all religious and sectarian barriers,” Sherwood said. “My hope is that those who experienced this production of Ramayana – Past in Present will experience the joy we humans can experience when we realize we are all actually related to each other in a very deep, meaningful and spiritual way.”

Sherwood feels like he’s worked on the play for as long as he can remember, and now that’s completed its run on the hilltop he feels tired, but fulfilled.

“I feel like I could sleep for a week,” Sherwood said. “I also feel extremely peaceful and satisfied because completing this project with the help of WLU’s talented and dedicated students and faculty has been a life changing experience for me. They have helped me grow artistically and become a better person. The cast was a blast to work with.”

“I especially feel grateful to Dr. Melinda Kreisberg,” Sherwood continued. “Her choreography and blocking brought the show to life. Many audience members praised the way she choreographed the scenes with the monkeys. Her role as the director was awesome.” 

With the work behind him, Sherwood has also had a little time to reflect.

“During one of the intermissions a stranger with blonde hair and blue eyes quietly stood next to me and started crying,” Sherwood said. “I was stunned. He continued crying for some time. I felt he was having a special internal moment and did not want to disturb him. Finally he broke the silence.  ‘I am a devotee of Hanuman.’ (the narrator in Ramayana, portrayed by Brady Dunn) Then with a voice choking with emotion said, ‘Thank-you so much’ and walked away. Later I found out he was from Pittsburgh. By word of mouth he found out about the show and made the 100 mile round trip journey just to see Hanuman tell the Ramayana story.”

Sherwood continues to have ambitions for the project, with hopes to make an original cast recording and a long range goal of bringing it to other theatrical settings. 

“I’d like to take it to Broadway,” Sherwood said. “Well at least off Broadway, but then again realistically maybe off, off, off Broadway. The point is wherever it lands up I’ll be happy, whether it is in a community or college theater, in a musical theater festival, a yoga ashram or in front of my grandkids.”

Ramayana – Past in Present was made possible by the kind donation of the late Helga Ives of Youngstown, Ohio.  Helga was a loving wife, mother and patron of the arts. She was the wife of Professor David S. Ives, who taught Classical Studies and English at Youngstown State University.

Photo by Ian Beabout