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Saturday January 22nd

'The Parchman Hour' succeeds at storytelling, despite confusing characters

Director Mike Wiley oversees a rehearsal of his play, The Parchman Hour.
Buy Photos Director Mike Wiley oversees a rehearsal of his play, The Parchman Hour.

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “The Parchman Hour” doesn’t have a standout lead.

The play — experiencing its professional world premiere after a student workshop production through the Department of Dramatic Art last December — is ensemble acting at its best.

SEE THE PLAY:

Tues. to Sat. at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Sunday at 2 p.m. until Nov. 13.

Paul Green Theater

Tickets are $10 to $45

www.playmakersrep.org

3.5 out of 5 stars

“Parchman” tells of the 1961 Freedom Riders through vignettes intertwined with mug shots and found footage projected onto 16 small screens acting as one.

At times, the characters interact while imprisoned at the brutal Parchman Farm prison, arguing, singing or joking.

Other times, parts of the ensemble duck to a different part of the stage to act out a story, subtly taking on new characterizations to fit the memories.

Most of these reflections felt like generic stories of racism in the ’60s — whites denying blacks entrance or service.

One of the most poignant was the story of a black man wanting a haircut and shave at the town barbershop. He was denied by the two white characters who were discussing, appropriately, UNC and Duke’s basketball rivalry.

What made the scene stand out despite its by-the-book depiction of racism and segregation in the south was the uncanny use of the actors.

The white barber was played by black actor Nilan Johnson, while the black patron was played by white actor John Dreher.

In the topical sense, the scene was confusing. But hearing the story with the visual message director Mike Wiley used turned what reads as a regular depiction of the time period into one of the play’s most memorable scenes.

Throughout the first act, it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint who is playing whom — which actors play men, which play women, which are playing black and which are playing white.

The play’s most energetic and chilling moments came during the soulful songs sang by the inmates.

Despite a range of ages — the depicted riders were 18 to 41 — and differing ideas on religion, pacifism and the Civil Rights movement, the characters became united when songs began.

One person would start singing, often loudly and abruptly, and harmonizing, beating and clapping would quickly follow.

These moments built the most organic and energetic moments of the performance, showcasing the style of the Freedom Riders as pacifists who used words to defeat segregation.

A former Freedom Rider was in the audience, and on the final number, he joined the cast on stage, dancing among them and giving his praise.

But even these high-energy moments couldn’t distract from the first acts confusing lack of consistent characterizations.

The play seemed to lack a solid plot, functioning more as a historical documentation of the events or a production of diary entry after diary entry.

“Parchman” feels like the prison variety hour its title recalls.

It’s an energetic and historically telling thread of stories, united by strong writing and an obvious dedication by Wiley and his strong ensemble.

Contact the Arts Editor

at arts@dailytarheel.com.

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