by Byron Woods
Over the past decade, the region has come to admire Mike Wiley’s series of intensely researched—and brilliantly crafted—original one-person shows that have illuminated significant (but frequently neglected) events in America’s long and problematic racial history. Wiley's unerring ear for dialogue, acute editorial sense of scene, and significant gifts as an actor and a mimic have made solo works like DAR HE: THE LYNCHING OF EMMETT TILL (partially captured in the film EMPTY SPACE, which took honors at last year’s Carrboro Film Festival) actually feel like an evening spent among an intense community of people, united at times and divided at others by a common dilemma.
But after his 2008 adaptation of Tim Tyson’s BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME (with a “cast” of over 20 characters, all which he performed) pointed to the possible limits of what anyone could accomplish with a one-man show, THE PARCHMAN HOUR, Wiley’s new work about the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement in 1961, marks his first script written for a company of actors, and his first time directing—or, at least, directing other performers on stage.
Thankfully, the news from its world premiere at UNC's Kenan Theater is good.
Wiley effectively marshals the talents of the classes he has taught this semester as a guest artist through the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and UNC’s Department of Dramatic Art. Students who have meticulously researched their characters place us in the haunting presence of activists including Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) president James Farmer (Lariah Ijames), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member (and, later, U.S. Representative) John Lewis (Doug Bynum) and Stokely Carmichael (an entrancing Kashif Powell). To their number we add Michael Goolsby’s chilling performance of two inmates at Mississippi’s notorious maximum security prison, Parchman Farm, RaTasha Tillery-Smith’s equally chill portrayal of a prison guard—and her eerie, heartfelt rendition of the spiritual, “Travelling Shoes.”Freedom Riders were an interracial group of activists who sought to test a 1960 Supreme Court decision, along with rules established some five years earlier, that ostensibly banned racial discrimination on public transportation in the U.S. “In any sane, even half-civilized society,” Carmichael wrote, the act of black and white citizens sitting together on a bus “would have been completely innocuous, hardly worth a second thought or meriting any comment at all.” But the groups that attempted to ride from Washington to New Orleans in May, 1961 had their bus firebombed—while they were still on it—outside Anniston, Ala. They were subsequently attacked by mobs, first in Birmingham and then in Montgomery, before their arrest in Jackson, Miss. and subsequent incarceration at Parchman.
Music director Mary Williams has produced a haunting soundtrack here, working with these vocalists and a local student blues quartet. Indeed, one of the main achievements in this work involves the depiction of the self-styled, self-produced “variety shows” the inmates staged each evening, from their cells, during their incarceration—the shows which give THE PARCHMAN HOUR its name. Williams and Wiley effectively demonstrate just how unifying and restorative the music of the struggle was, and how the community invoked by the dialogue and jokes of those hours strengthened these activists in their time of trial.
Still, Mike Wiley’s new work is a strong—actually, make that necessary—reminder, not only of some of the starkest realities of the segregated South, but of the astounding resilience of those who chose to stand against it. The production’s scrupulous accounting of the very real divisions among the leaders of the civil rights movement, their own crises of conscience and cowardice, and the “measured” political responses of government representatives (including then-U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy), adds appreciable depth, dimension and veracity to the times depicted. Strongly recommended.