For performer and playwright Mike Wiley, telling the stories of African American historical figures was a one-man job that he excelled at. He took his solo acts across the country, weaving narratives out of the African-American diaspora, playing countless characters even though he was the only person onstage. Though he’s now directing 19 actors in his original play, The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of ’61 Freedom Riders at Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, Va. (Oct. 25-Nov. 12), Wiley has created an ensemble work that directly reflects his work as a solo artist. He fondly recalls the comment a stranger made to him at the play’s 2011 premiere at Playmakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, N.C.: “I went to go see The Parchman Hour expecting to see you. I didn’t see you onstage, but what I saw was an ensemble of Mike Wileys onstage.”
The Parchman Hour was born in 2010, in a classroom at Duke University where Wiley served as the Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in the Documentary and American Studies Departments. He had his students research the Freedom Riders of 1961, while conducting his own research. His class the following fall comprised the cast for early stagings of The Parchman Hour. After premiering at PlayMakers in 2011, it was produced at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville, N.C., in 2013. Last year it played at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis under the direction of Patricia McGregor.
The play recounts the story of the 1961 Freedom Riders, a core group of 13 Civil Rights workers who traveled from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans on a racially integrated bus. Nearly 300 others followed suit, and a famous resistance movement was born. Many were beaten and abused, and some were killed. Others ended up at Mississippi’s brutal Parchman Farm Penitentiary, from which the play derives its name. The format is a variety show, live from the prison, focusing on the original 13 freedom fighters.
“One of the greatest things about the piece is that there is a great deal of comedy,” Wiley says about his play. “The music, the comedy, the reflection, but also the serious undertones give people an opportunity to step in the room—regardless of your political affiliation.”
Unique to this iteration of The Parchman Hour is Virginia Stage Company’s partnership with Norfolk State University. Students from the university’s drama program appear alongside professionals in the production, marking the first time Wiley has been able to afford a cast big enough to represent all 13 original Freedom Riders onstage. According to Wiley, the students’ work on the play has also turned them into activists. It also reminds him of the days at Duke when the piece first came to life; having students perform in the piece again brings it full circle.
“Using so many young people that are the same age as the Freedom Riders gives young people the chance to see themselves in the movement in the same way that the Freedom Riders saw themselves in the movement in 1961,” says Wiley.
Producing The Parchman Hour in Virginia is “almost too timely,” according to Tom Quaintance, producing artistic director at Virginia Stage Company. He’s referring, of course, to the white supremacist rally in August in Charlottesville, Va., not far from Virginia Stage. This iteration of Parchman, as both Quaintance and Wiley suggest, serves as a direct response to that incident, even though the play was written years ago. There are striking parallels, they say, between now and 1961: Both time periods reflect the hopelessness of “a nation that is seemingly willing to take a turn away from progress,” according to Wiley.
Wiley, in the roles of both director and playwright, knows that the piece is molded by current events surrounding the time of each presentation, and even makes small changes to the text. Patricia McGregor, who directed the piece at the Guthrie around the time of last year’s election, was curious about the play’s contemporary relevance, and asked Wiley about it. Both Wiley and McGregor noticed similarities between Black Lives Matter and the Freedom Riders, with McGregor suggesting the play close with the actors in modern garb to highlight the parallels.
Since then, Wiley has found additional ways to tie in current events, especially after Charlottesville. Virginia Stage Company has been in communication with Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville; Bro will speak at a post-show panel discussion. Other moderated discussions will feature Wiley, Quaintance, an original Freedom Rider, a sit-in protester, and other community members.
The hope is that dialogue can be created surrounding the racial tension still so prominent in this country. “So many productions of other plays that deal with marginalization and racism can point fingers and close mouths,” Wiley notes. “I believe that what The Parchman Hour does is it opens mouths, helps to raise hands, and is a call to embrace.”