For anyone who's ever suffered a technically correct—but emotionally distant—recital of dramatic art at PlayMakers Rep, the first full professional production of playwright/director Mike Wiley's historical drama, The Parchman Hour, is an effective antidote.
As it recounts the story of a multiracial group of civil rights activists trying to integrate interstate bus travel in 1961, you can taste the passion as actors Alphonse Nicholson, David Aron Damane and Rasool Jahan repeatedly galvanize the audience during soul-stirring fast and slow renditions of protest and prison songs. Executing Aya Shabu's evocative choreography and accompanied by a righteous rhythm and blues band, the crew had its audience standing, clapping and dancing last Saturday night as actor Dee Dee Batteast belted the finale, "Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom."
Wiley's chronicle of the Freedom Riders' all-too-literal trial by fire has changed a bit since an initial student production premiered here last December and toured Mississippi in the spring. He's smartly bolstered and furthered a number of his original script's strengths. Doug Bynum repeats his staunch portrayal of John Lewis, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a present-day Georgia congressman.
But, even though Kashif Powell reprises his compelling work as activist Stokely Carmichael, his character's prominence seems dialed back—along, apparently, with the unique prison survival strategy the play is named for. The original version emphasized the nightly self-styled "variety show" of songs, sketches and individual stories jailed activists would "stage" in their cells at Mississippi's Parchman Farm penitentiary. These were repeatedly juxtaposed with testimony from individual activists, crisply cited in a manner similar to Tectonic Theater's productions of The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency.
But in its various flashbacks, repeats and flash-forwards, this iteration becomes tangled in the narrative thread. Lewis and James Farmer (Kathryn Hunter-Williams), president of the Congress on Racial Equality, again revisit memories from their childhood. But the firebombing of the Freedom Riders' bus outside Anniston, Ala., seemed somehow more abstract in this version. Perhaps it's because the video screens designed by Roz Fulton were spaced so far apart that archival news footage of the burning bus and footage of the battered face of an activist named Jim Zwerg were reduced to fragments with much of the detail missing. Elsewhere, sequences detailing crises of ethical leadership among government and civil rights leaders seem abridged or rushed.
Wiley's work remains a necessary reminder of the resilience of those who challenged an entire society's conscience. However, in a time when other activists are currently being jailed—and hospitalized—for their work, any sense of self-congratulation seems woefully premature Perhaps one of the lessons of this show is that rights are like muscles: They atrophy from disuse. If so, there's a potent cue in this work: Get on your traveling shoes.