Wiley, a UNC graduate, is directing the world professional premiere of “The Parchman Hour,” which he wrote about the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.
The play was performed last December at Kenan Theater with a student cast. The short-run production commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders’ trips to desegregate the South.
As a child, Wiley said he imitated cartoon characters, altering his voice, leading his brother to ask, “Why does he talk like this?”
He showed an early interest in theater and stage productions, and solo plays came naturally to him. Being in theater was a childhood dream, Wiley said.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.
His main theatrical influence was his aunt, who for many years was an actress and director. She now works to promote singers and songwriters.
“She and I are the only people who do this in our family,” Wiley said with a laugh. “Everyone has come to expect us to be the wild ones.”
He began acting with the help of a box.
It sat in the back of his Ford Tempo and accompanied him for his depictions of Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who escaped the brutalities of slavery in a wooden box.
He would stand in the box, which came to his knees, performing soliloquies wherever he could — even family reunions.
Wiley gained great popularity with this solo act, jump starting his 15-year acting career.
From there, Mike Wiley Productions was established.
The Parchman Hour
It was with the help of his students at both UNC and Duke University that Wiley was able to begin writing the script for “The Parchman Hour.”
While his students were researching stories about the Freedom Riders, they came across a diary of rider Carol Silver.
Silver wrote, “At Parchman, they had the day very organized. At night, they would have a variety show.”
This inspired Wiley.
“And I thought, there it is,” Wiley said. “There is the key. Right there is a variety show. That’s how we tell both stories.”
The stories portrayed in the performance surround the time the riders spent at Parchman Farm, a brutal prison in Mississippi, as well as their journey from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Miss.
Rozlyn Sorrell, music director for “The Parchman Hour,” said that Wiley’s research will let audiences know the real truth.
“The story tells us that we have come a long way, but realize that we still have a long way to go,” she said.
The central theme of African American history concerning civil rights and racism has long been the focal point in many of Wiley’s plays.
In order to illustrate these crucial points in American history, Wiley delves deeper into his imagination to bring out the best in his cast.
He analyzes how films portray certain sequences and determines how such scenes can be performed live on stage.
“I want to see ‘what happens if.’ That’s the big thing. The possibilities are endless,” he said. “What happens if we move our bodies this way? What happens if we play with the reality of the scene?”
His transition from solo actor to director of a large ensemble came with producing “The Parchman Hour.”
In 2008, Wiley teamed with PlayMakers Repertory Company for “Witness to an Execution,” a one-man performance recounting stories from death row inmates in Texas that aligned with a campus-wide conversation on capital punishment.
Joe Haj, producing artistic director for PlayMakers, said Wiley’s credits as a writer-director made the play a good fit for the season, despite his lack of experience with a large cast.
“He’s an incredible, generous collaborator,” Haj said.
Entering rehearsals, there was a constant buzz — the buzz of a busy environment of actors, actresses, musicians and art directors preparing for the upcoming production.
Jessica Sorgi entered for the opening scene, her blond hair tied back under a loose cowboy hat.
Acting as a child playing a game of cowboys, she fell to the ground when “shot” by the enemy.
Wiley stopped the scene and instructed Sorgi to spin after getting “shot” and dramatically fall to the ground. Heeding his instructions, the scene began from the top.
Suddenly, those 10 seconds held a hint of comedy.
Wiley regularly jumped in to personally instruct each actor on how to improve their performance.
In this busy environment, Wiley could not stay in one place. He walked around the room, soaking in different angles of the cast’s performance.
As Dee Dee Batteast, one of the play’s actresses, was practicing a musical solo, Wiley encouraged the onlooking cast to give her some support. They all began cheering and applauding before jumping into the choreography — which Wiley joined in on.
“If you’re not having a good time, why do it?” he said.
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