By Jerome Langston
Oddly enough, it was a conversation on a porch in Maine, with television writer Bill Svanoe about the music of the sixties, which eventually lead Virginia native, Mike Wiley, to create The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders. This was back in 2009, and Mike was blown away by the story of the Freedom Riders, a story that he knew little about, despite his years working in documentary theatre.
The anniversary of the Freedom Rides of 1961 was coming up in 2011, and Wiley, an accomplished actor and playwright, wrote and developed The Parchman Hour during his time as a visiting professor at both Duke University and UNC, in 2010. Since that time, the production has been mounted by prestigious companies like the Guthrie Theater. The two-hour play with intermission becomes the second official collaboration between Virginia Stage Company and the Norfolk State University Theatre Company, following the huge success of The Wiz earlier this year for season 38.
“It’s always my desire to focus in on the individuals that are rarely talked about,” Mike says while sitting across from me at a table in the lobby of the Wells Theatre, during this first Monday of October. This is the beginning of only his second week at VSC. And although this is his first production for the company, he already had a relationship with Tom Quaintance, the producing artistic director of Virginia Stage Company. Tom attended the first professional production of the work, and then later, tapped it to be produced at Fayetteville’s Cape Fear Regional Theatre back in 2013, where he was then their artistic director. Tom has been a major champion of the play ever since, a fact that he shared with us during a later meet and greet that evening, prior to the table read.
It’s during the table read that the seamless incorporation of music and some impressive, harmonious singing, becomes clear, and adds levity and balance to a work that is understandably heavy, with its exploration of sixties era racial bigotry and related violence. “People need sugar with their medicine,” notes Mike, who directs but doesn’t star in this VSC production of The Parchman Hour. The play, with its music and satire, invites engagement with the audience, he says. “They lean into it to the point where they feel like they are a part of it, that the story is theirs…”
It also seems that the entire 17-member cast, about a half of which are current or former NSU students, are all quite well equipped for the vocal demands of the play. Musical director Roy George plays the piano during the read, and the song arrangements are remarkable, while the tunes themselves, ranging from Bob Dylan to traditional work songs, are well placed within the narrative.
Speaking of the narrative, the play’s setting is 1961, when the first Freedom Rides actually occurred. However, the Riders are actually locked up in the notorious Parchman Farm, aka the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It is there that the characters imagine their journey through the segregated south, becoming all sorts of legendary characters, including MLK and Bobby Kennedy.
The Freedom Rides were organized by CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), in order to challenge the Jim Crow travel laws that had been struck down in separate Supreme Court rulings, but were of course still being adhered to throughout the South. The Riders were an interesting mix of ages and race, and were all committed to ending unlawful segregated interstate bus travel, and related discriminatory practices during travel.
In writing The Parchman Hour, Mike focused on the experiences of activists like James Farmer, Jean Thompson, John Lewis, and a very young Stokely Carmichael, who is portrayed here by actor Christopher Lindsay, a recent Theatre Performance graduate of NSU, and currently a resident theatre artist for VSC. Chris tells me a few days after the table read, that he “knew about the Freedom Riders long ago,” in part because his grandparents were Black Panthers. He’s also learned a lot about who Stokely Carmichael was at the time of the play, as a 19- year-old college student. “He’s still growing,” Christopher says. “He challenges everybody and everything that people say.”
The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders is being produced at an “interesting” time here in America. The ugliness of white supremacy, and other manifestations of oppressive racism, which were long thought to be primarily remnants of the past, has reared their heads in the wake of last year’s presidential election. This new reality has even influenced Mike to revisit the work, adding elements to it that speak more directly to our current day struggles.
“It’s no longer a play about ‘days gone by and what these folks did,’ it’s a call to action, now.”
WANT TO GO?
The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders
October 25-November 12
Virginia Stage Company with
Norfolk State University Theatre Company
The Wells Theatre