They made their stand for freedom by riding Greyhound buses through the segregated South.
Their destination was New Orleans, but it was in Jackson, Miss., where the Freedom Riders would land in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as the Parchman Farm.
And that’s where North Carolina playwright Mike Wiley’s production of “The Parchman Hour” takes us when it stages at The Maguire Theatre Friday, 8 p.m.
Wiley is known for his socially conscious theatrical story telling. Last year folks might recall his production of “Blood Done Sign My Name,” a theatrical retelling of a murder wrought with racial tension — a project the playwright thoroughly researched before putting it down on paper.
Like with “Blood,” Wiley has researched the history of the Freedom Riders in an effort to tell their story on stage. He says he discovered that the most effective way was to tell it from the Parchman Farm where the riders were held by authorities attempting to stop their ride to end segregation in the South.
Once arrested the riders would refuse bail and subsequently would overflow jails. That’s when they were sent to the Parchman Farm in Mississippi. It was there, in order to make the time pass, they would do things such as read Bible verses or sing gospels, “... All from the cells to create some form of escapism.”
“When I discovered that in my research of the Freedom Ride, I found a way to not just tell a story of the Freedom Riders and time in Parchman, but the Freedom Ride itself,” Wiley explained.
Taking this image of the Freedom Riders singing, reading and perhaps even performing while in prison, Wiley imagined a variety show of sorts that would not only tell the story of their time in prison, but also tell the story of the Freedom Riders themselves.
“The actors tell the story of the Freedom Ride as well as the Freedom Riders’ time in the Parchman penitentiary,” Wiley said. “They tell it as the original Freedom Riders.”
They tell the stories from the perspective of people such as Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis. They tell it with the help of a three-piece blues band that will accompany the performance with gospels and spirituals.
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode the buses into the South in 1961 to support the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing racial segregation in public spaces such as bus terminals that crossed state lines.
The riders were met with violent reactions that would ultimately lend credibility to the Civil Rights Movement, calling national attention to their cause.
Police would arrest riders and charge them with trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local segregation laws known as Jim Crow laws.
The riders’ goal was to make it to New Orleans via intestate buses but that plan was thwarted when they met resistance and arrest in Mississippi — many of them would later fly to New Orleans, however.
Their time in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm was characterized by abuse such as being housed on death row, being only allowed to wear underwear and no exercise.
But their spirit would not be broken and their efforts to stay positive inspired this production that celebrates this history.
Wiley penned this production when he was a visiting professor at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at the Center for Documentary Studies. He says his class helped him create “The Parchman Hour.”
The first production of the play was done for Duke and UNC students. The student performers, however, would tour with the show and eventually perform it in Jackson, Miss., in 2010.
“The first show was standing room only in the Jackson Civic Center, around the corner from the old Greyhound (bus) station,” recalled Wiley. “In that audience there were a number of Freedom Riders.”
Wiley says neither he nor his students were aware of the Freedom Riders’ presence, however.
“We had no idea they were going to be there,” he said. “This was supposed to be a performance for the community so we performed and then afterwards these Freedom Riders came forward and said they were amazed with the level of talent and our ability to recreate the prison and the actual Freedom Ride at the same time.
“It was an emotional night for everyone.”
The students would go on to hold a special performance for all of the Freedom Riders. Wiley said that too was an emotional experience.
“Some of these folks had not done anything in the freedom movement after their initial arrest in 1961,” said Wiley of the Freedom Rider performance. “So here they are being portrayed on stage by young student actors. It was a pretty moving event.”
Wiley’s productions tend to be moving and thought provoking events. Arts of the Albemarle director Rhonda Twiddy said that last year’s production was a huge success and brought a great of deal of interest from the community.
Like any Wiley production, “The Parchman Hour” will conclude with a question and answer period. It gives members of the audience an opportunity to discuss any thoughts or questions the production might have brought up with Riley.
“That’s one of my favorite parts and I always include that,” says Wiley.
For more information or for tickets, contact Arts of the Albemarle at 252-338-6455.