PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world-premiere production of The Parchman Hour: The Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders, playing now through Nov. 13th in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina’s Center for Dramatic Art, is a timely docudrama written and directed by Mike Wiley. It is an eloquent tribute on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides; but it lacks the focus and intensity of Wiley’s wonderful one-man shows, such as Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till and One Noble Journey, which make him arguably the Triangle’s foremost chronicler of the African-American experience.
Wiley uses the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) Freedom Ride of May 4-17, 1961, the Ku Klux Klan mob attack and firebombing of a Greyhound bus on Mother’s Day (May 14th) in Anniston, AL, and the Freedom Riders’ arrest in Jackson, MS and imprisonment — stripped to their underwear — on Death Row of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (better known as the “Parchman Farm”) as a springboard for an episodic Brechtian drama in which the suffering of the Freedom Riders is positively Joblike as they absorb blow after blow from rampaging mobs, the police, and the prison guards from the Jim Crow South.
But there are too many actors and actresses who play multiple roles and too much race- and gender-blind casting for the audience to figure out who’s who at any given moment, especially with most of the cast members performing in their BVDs for much of the play.
Oh well, Wiley’s vivid vignettes provide the opportunity for a number of passionate performances. They include the incandescent portrayals of charismatic 19-year-old college student and future Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman Stokely Carmichael (1941-98) by Kashif Powell; feisty Freedom Rider Freddy Leonard by the ever-improving Alphonse Nicholson; and wavering CORE director James L. Farmer, Jr. by the always-excellent Kathryn Hunter-Williams.
David Aron Damane is magnificent as a Parchman Farm inmate named Pee Wee and as Civil Rights Movement legend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68), who turned down the Freedom Riders’ request that he join them on the bus, because he was already on probation. Damane’s vibrant version of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” is show-stopper, even if insertion of the title track of singer-songwriter Bob Dylan’s third studio album, released in January 1964, is a glaring anachronism.
Dee Dee Batteast adds a high-octane performance as gospel-singing Tennessee State University student Lucretia Collins, and Doug Bynum’s impersonation of SNCC chairman and later U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis (D-GA) is eloquent.
Kelsey Didion is terrific as Freedom Rider and singer Bill Svanoe and infamous arch-segregationist Birmingham, AL Police Commissioner Bull Connor. Rasool Jahan etches an indelible portrait as Freedom Rider Mimi Feingold Real; and Jessica Sorgi is amusing as a little white tomboy named Janie Forsyth, who witnesses the Mother’s Day bus bombing and tries to minister to the injured.
John Dreher as Papa Forsyth, Josh Tobin subbing for Matt Garner as Freedom Rider Stephen John Green and doubling as Forsyth’s dimwit cracker buddy Elwood, Randa McNamara as brutal Parchman Deputy Tyson, and Nathaniel Claridad as Freedom Rider Carol Ruth Silver all make the most of their moments in the spotlight.
Even if it’s sometimes adds to the confusion, the kinetic staging of playwright and director Mike Wiley, choreographer Aya Shabu, and movement coach Craig Turner moves matters along at a brisk pace, with the proceedings punctuated by the blazing blues and gospel numbers performed live by music director Rozlyn Sorrell and an onstage band that includes Kevin Wilson (guitar), Bertron Curtis (keyboards), Thurman Woods (bass), and, Ed Butler (percussion).
Lighting designer Kathy A. Perkins, costume designer Rachel E. Pollock, and sound designer Ryan J. Gastelum also deserve kudos; and set designer McKay Coble does her usual excellent job. But the grid-like backdrop through which video designer Roz Fulton projects mug shots of Freedom Riders and other pertinent photographs is problematic, because it splits and/or makes many of the pictures hard to see — and what is the famous Lorraine Motel shot taken immediately after Dr. King’s April 1968 assassination doing in the mix with the May 1961 illustrations of the Freedom Riders’ heroic effort to desegregate the public transportation in the Jim Crow South.
Their bloody ordeal pricked the conscience of the nation, even though the Kennedy Administration was much too tolerant of the foot-dragging tactics of the Deep South governors whose support they needed to reelect JFK in 1964.
SECOND OPINION: Nov. 2nd Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/playmakers-reps-the-parchman-hour/Content?oid=2695091; Nov. 1st Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/11/01/1610279/ambitious-parchman-hour-overreaches.html; Oct. 31st Chapel Hill, NC Chapel Hill Magazine review by Andrea Griffith Cash: http://www.chapelhillmagazine.com/blogs/chapel-hill-magazine-blog/’the-parchman-hour’; Oct. 31st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jeffrey Rossman: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5148; Oct. 28th Durham, NC Herald-Sun preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/16186273/article-Freedom-Riders-on-stage-in-“The-Parchman-Hour”-?instance=main_article (Note 1: You must register first to read this article); Oct. 30th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel review by Katelyn Trela: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/10/parchman_succeeds_in_song and Oct. 25th preview by Nidhi Singh: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2011/10/mike_wiley_1026; and Oct. 20th Durham, NC Chronicle preview by Jamie Moon: http://dukechronicle.com/article/parchman-hour-helps-construct-legacy-imprisoned-freedom-riders. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 25th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/10/playmakers-repertory-company-will-stage-the-world-premiere-of-the-parchman-hour-by-mike-wiley/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents THE PARCHMAN HOUR: SONGS AND STORIES OF THE ’61 FREEDOM RIDERS, world premiere by Mike Wiley, at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5, 2 p.m. Nov. 6, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8-12, and 2 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
BOX OFFICE: 919/962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
PRC BLOG: http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
NOTE 1: All tickets are $10, and seating is general admission for the 7:30 p.m. Tuesday “Community Night” performances.
NOTE 2: The Prologue Series, created by PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Library, is a pre-show conversation with a member of the PlayMakers creative team at the library at 12 noon on Nov. 5th at Flyleaf Books (http://www.flyleafbooks.com/), 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
NOTE 3: On Nov. 6th, there will be FREE post-performance discussions with representatives of the show’s creative team, including designers, production staff, and/or actors.
NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8th performance, which will also be sign-language interpreted.
NOTE 5: The North Carolina Psychoanalytic Foundation (http://www.ncpsychoanalysis.org/), the Lucy Daniels Foundation (http://www.ldf.org/home/), and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society (http://www.ncpsasoc.org/) will sponsor “Mindplay: A 50-minute Hour,” a FREE psychoanalytic discussion led by John Tisdale, DMin, after the 7:30 p.m. Nov. 12th and 2 p.m. Nov. 13th performances.
The Play: http://www.mikewileyproductions.com/play_parchman.html (official web page).
The Playwright and Director: http://www.mikewileyproductions.com/ (official website).
Freedom Riders: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_riders (Wikipedia).
Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_State_Penitentiary (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.