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History revealed in Blood Done Sign My Name

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BLOOD DONE SIGN MY NAME, playwright and solo performer Mike Wiley's adaptation of Timothy B. Tyson's best-selling memoir, boasts the largest cast of any one-person show I've ever seen. In Wiley's prismatic, sometimes cinematic take, nearly 30 characters speak to us about a race-based murder in Oxford, N.C.

On the night of May 11, 1970, three white men brutally beat and then killed 23-year-old Henry "Dickie" Marrow, an African-American Vietnam War veteran. Though multiple eyewitnesses identified business owner Robert Teel, his son Larry Teel and his stepson Roger Oakley as being involved in the killing, an all-white jury returned no convictions for Marrow's death.

In the aftermath, white-owned businesses and tobacco warehouses were firebombed, causing more than $1 million in property damage. A protest march from Granville County to Raleigh provoked retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan.

Almost unbelievably—that is, to anyone except North Carolina natives from that time—the event would have just blown over and been lost in the largely unwritten racial history of the state had Tyson not gone back to his childhood town and started asking questions.

The conflicting answers from civil rights workers, community members, Robert Teel and Tyson's father, Vernon—who was pastor, at the time, of an Oxford Methodist church—add to the sense of a mosaic in Wiley's adaptation.

Judicious editing has improved the work since its 2008 premiere. Managing so many characters still poses more of a challenge than in Wiley's earlier works, such as Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till. But his acting skills, along with the careful verbal tags introducing every witness, effectively delineate most characters. Restructuring has also eliminated too-brief scenes that occasionally suggested channel surfing in the original production.

Mary D. Williams' robust a cappella vocals from the canon of African-American protest songs and spirituals provide a stirring backdrop for this moving and still-necessary act of theatrical witness.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Bared Witness"

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