By COLIN WARREN-HICKS
December 4, 2010
Though graphic and sometimes painful, the latest student production
in the Center for Dramatic Art manages to balance different views and
provide a clear view of a potentially tangled historical topic.
The UNC Department of Dramatic Art, paired with the Center for Documentary
Studies at Duke University, have helped bring visiting professor Mike
Wiley's fourth Civil Rights Movement era production, "The Parchman
Hour," to vivid life in the Keenan Theatre.
Directing his newest script, Wiley presents the story of 1961 Freedom
Riders. A medley of races, ages, socio-economic statuses and origins,
the Freedom Riders suffered significant abuses while protesting Jim
Crow segregation laws in the American South through their peaceful
protests integrating public bus lines.
It is a sophisticated script and staging. Actors from Duke and UNC
share the stage with a band of high school students from East Chapel
Hill High School.
The primary characters represent Freedom Riders, speaking while
incarcerated in the Parchman Penitentiary. The prison, a simple
two-story structure, dominated the stage space.
While imprisoned, characters narrate and comment on personal and
communal experiences as the rest of an ensemble cast provides visual
interpretations of their words.
From its start to applause-deserving finish, the play retains a
The play opens with a cute Caucasian girl, actress Rebecca Watson,
playing jump rope. Contrasting this harmless appearance, the innocent
girl gleefully sings about her brother being spanked illustrating
violence's deep root in society.
And as the Freedom Riders' passing Grey Hound Bus is fire bombed in
front of the child, the scene swerves into chaos and the play mounts
to a subsequent sustained fervor.
In some instances Wiley's personal take on historical events is unmistakable.
Though liberal leaders like Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and
Reverend Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. both declined to give direct
support to the Riders, Wiley condemns Kennedy while arguing King's
Actress Amelia Sciandra mockingly portrays Kennedy as if from the
television show "Mad Men," chain smoking and slapping secretarial
behinds in a hilarious send-up of a well-known political icon.
Voice is shared equally between two activist leaders and their two
The production's protagonists, John Lewis, played by Doug Bynum, and
Stokely Carmichael, played by Kashif Powell, seem to embody the
principles equated with King and Malcolm X.
Moments when the actors stand above the ensemble locked in weighty
debate under façades of wit surpass scenes of abusive spectacle, such
as beatings and explosions.
That Wiley manages to squeeze a colossal amount of documentary facts,
individual experiences and a social movement's various sentiments
into ninety minutes is remarkable.
The play's action gracefully moves from story to story with gliding
Large scale musical numbers divide many scenes. An on-stage band in
particular East Chapel Hill High School's Sam Tyson on blues guitar
and cast full of full-bodied singers keep Keenan Theatre rocking.
To expose social flaws, one must not be afraid to utilize opposing
voices, and Wiley shows no fear as he uses illustrative stereotypes.
However, an excess of painfully forged Southern accents often weakens the show.
A clever lighting design, projecting a stained glass cross over a Ku
Klux Klan meeting, is ruined by a hokey Klan grandmaster in grinding
That Wiley gives no real redeeming quality to any characters outside
of his Freedom Riders is disappointing. An experienced playwright,
Wiley should give sympathy to the devil without platitude.
"The Parchman Hour" is not a political statement, but instead a
positive appraisal of the past. It is an ode to the accomplishments
and overall worth of the Freedom Riders.
And Wiley's production itself has great value. With standout musical
numbers and smooth transitions between compacted and vivid
narratives, "The Parchman Hour" is a powerful display of protest.