PlayMakers’ world premiere commemorates Freedom Riders

In the summer of 1961, during the first months of America’s civil rights movement, waves of young people rode buses into the heart of the deep South. Mostly college students, the interracial groups challenged Jim Crow laws that segregated interstate travel in the region. Their bravery helped change the course of American history.

PlayMakers Repertory Company, the professional theater company in residence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, will present their story Oct. 26-Nov. 13 in the world premiere of “The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders.”

PlayMakers also will sponsor free community events tied to the production beginning Friday (Oct. 7). All are listed below.

Many of the Freedom Riders were brutally attacked, arrested and imprisoned in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary. There they invented an ingenious pastime to help them endure: a live variety show inspired by programs then popular on radio and television. Jokes, stories, singing and Bible readings sprang from every cell. This nightly event became known as “The Parchman Hour.”

“With characters including Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, ‘The Parchman Hour’ honors an important piece of history,” said Joseph Haj, PlayMakers producing artistic director. “PlayMakers is proud to give this inspiring new play its professional premiere.”

“The Parchman Hour” is written and directed by Mike Wiley, a specialist in documentary theater. Wiley was the 2010 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC. He graduated from UNC’s professional actor training program in 2004. As founder of Mike Wiley Productions, he presents original plays to theaters and educational settings nationwide, including “Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till” and his stage adaptation of Tim Tyson’s book “Blood Done Sign My Name.”

“The Parchman Hour,” Wiley’s newest work, was originally staged in 2010 as a student production by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and UNC’s dramatic art department. The student production also was featured in a workshop in 2010 as the final event of the Freedom Riders’ 50th anniversary commemoration in Jackson, Miss.

The Independent Weekly has called Wiley “one of this region’s foremost monologists and playwrights” and “The Parchman Hour” “a strong – actually, make that necessary – reminder, not only of the starkest realities of the segregated South, but of the astounding resilience of those who chose to stand against it.”

On Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m., PlayMakers will host “The Vision Series: Directors in Conversation” with playwright/director Wiley. Theater-goers and others interested in the creative process are invited to the Paul Green Theatre to share refreshments and a behind-the-scenes preview of the upcoming production.

“The Vision Series” is free to the public. Reservations are encouraged, as space is limited. Call PlayMakers’ box office at (919) 962-7529 to RSVP.

Performances of “The Parchman Hour” will be in the Paul Green Theatre in UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art on Country Club Road. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 5; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10 to $45. For a schedule, information and related events and to purchase tickets, call (919) 962-PLAY (7529) or visit

Community and educational events surrounding the production include:

  • Friday (Oct. 7), 6 p.m.: “Civil Rights Then and Now,” a discussion with Wiley and author Tim Tyson at The Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham. In partnership with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies;
  • Sunday (Oct. 9), 3-5 p.m.: “Parchman in Production,” the cast performing selections from the play followed by a conversation with Wiley and area civil rights leaders, at Hargraves Community Center, 216 N. Roberson St., Chapel Hill. Co-sponsored by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Area Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.;
  • Monday (Oct. 10), 6 p.m.: a program with Wiley and cast members at McIntyre’s Books, Fearrington Village (919-542-2121), Pittsboro;
  • Oct. 20, 6:30 p.m.: a screening of the “American Experience” PBS history series film “Freedom Riders” at the Varsity Theater, 123 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. The program will include a conversation with Wiley and the film’s producer, Laurens Grant. Offered in partnership with the Ackland Art Museum’s Film Forum, Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and Full Frame Documentary Film Festival;
  • Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: “In the Wings,” discussion with Wiley and cast members at the Durham County Library’s Southwest Regional branch, 3605 Shannon Road;
  • Oct. 26, 5 p.m.: “The Long Road to Parchman: North Carolina and the Desegregation of Interstate Busing,” UNC’s Wilson Library. Wiley and Derek Castam, author of “Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides,” discuss the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, in which an interracial group of 16 challenged segregation on buses in the South, and the Freedom Riders. A reception in the library lobby at 5 p.m. will be followed by the discussion at 5:30 p.m. in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room. Sponsored by PlayMakers, the library’s Southern Historical and North Carolina collections and Friends of the Library;
  • Oct. 26-28, 7:30 p.m.: preview performances of “The Parchman Hour”;
  • Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.: opening night performance with a complimentary gala party afterward;
  • Nov. 2 and Nov. 6: free post-show discussions with the creative team;
  • Nov. 5, noon: The Prologue Series, with PlayMakers and the Chapel Hill Library presenting a pre-show conversation with a member of the PlayMakers creative team, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill;
  • Nov. 8, 7:30 p.m.: an all-access performance for attendees with special needs, with sign language interpretation and audio description; and
  • Nov. 12 and 13: free post-show “Mindplay” discussions sponsored by the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society.

Following “The Parchman Hour,” PlayMakers’ 2011-2012 main-stage season continues with Edward Albee’s savagely funny “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” featuring Julie Fishell and Ray Dooley (Nov. 30-Dec. 18) and the Shakespearean epic “The Making of a King: Henry IV & Henry V” (performed in rotating repertory Jan. 28 through March 4). The main-stage season finale will be the uproarious British comedy “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn (April 4-22).  A variety of season subscriptions packages are available.

The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and Carol Woods Retirement Community are co-producing sponsors for “The Parchman Hour.”
PlayMakers is based in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. New York’s Drama League has named PlayMakers one of the “best regional theatre companies in America.”