A cast of one turns to nineteen in Mike Wiley's new ensemble version of his adaptation of Timothy Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name, currently in its premiere run at Raleigh Little Theatre. The play, like the book, revolves around the racially motivated 1970 murder of Henry "Dickie" Marrow in Oxford, North Carolina. Tyson, who was ten at the time, details his memories of the events surrounding the murder and what he learned in interviews as an adult. While the play still features archival footage—this time projected on set designer Sonya Drum's dilapidated "Welcome to Oxford, N.C." sign—and gospel music, now sung by multiple voices, that will be familiar to audiences of the one-man show, the new adaptation is otherwise very different.
In the original, Wiley performed a more or less linear sequence of events. But here, he places the focus on Tyson and his book to frame the story more freely. Tyson speaks to characters and watches himself as a ten-year-old getting used to a new home (Benjamin Cashwell), as a young man interviewing Oxford residents (Justin Toyer), and as an older man looking back on his work (Mark Phialas). As the lights go down, nearly every character comes out onto the detailed thrust stage, sitting on benches just inches away from audience members, each with a copy of Blood Done Sign My Name in hand.
As the older Tyson, Phialas serves as a watchful narrator, striding through a barbershop inspired by one of the businesses owned by Marrow's alleged murderers, the Teel family. Under Joseph Megel's direction, the ensemble creates a visceral, captivating experience that is almost overwhelming. To see them just feet away, chanting white supremacist rhetoric while costumed by Jenny Mitchell in full Ku Klux Klan garb and lit in Cailen Waddell's stark red and blue lights, or to see Marrow (JaJuan Cofield) beaten and shot repeatedly as his family members sob through their testimonies—these are not things you can walk away from without feeling something of the trauma surrounding Marrow's death.
While previous iterations of Blood Done Sign My Name partly aimed to educate audiences about something few history books reported, this new version reads as a master class in being an ally, if a flawed one. Tyson looks back on himself as a boy shooting at African Americans his age with an air rifle and ineptly trying to comfort a friend by saying maybe Martin Luther King Jr.'s death would be for the best; the author also reckons with his father's refusal to march in solidarity with Marrow's mourners.
The message is clear: even though societal change isn't neat or instantaneous, in the seventies or today, you have to be willing to try.