"Parchman Hour" packs a punch, tackles difficult topics

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 political orientation.

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 justifications.

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 opposing ideologies.

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 transitional choreography.

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 Southern drawl.

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.

Four out of five stars


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