It had just started getting tense in the South during the month of May in 1961. Little did the people who called the South home know that the summer was just beginning to heat up. That month, the first group of young Civil Rights activists boarded interstate buses to make the long trip into the integrated South. The first group of Freedom Riders, as they came to be known, left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961 and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. The purpose of their trip was to challenge Supreme Court rulings in Boynton v. Virginia and Morgan v. Virginia, which challenged the segregation of interstate buses.
The young idealists left Washington, with little or no idea of the reactions they would encounter in the Deep South. They were attacked by local mobs and did not have the benefi t of police protection. Instead, when the police arrived, the students were arrested for various reasons: trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating state and local Jim Crow laws.
As they moved further south, resistance and anger boiled to the front. It came to a head on Wednesday, May 24, when the Freedom Riders boarded buses to head into Jackson, Miss. While the buses were surrounded by the state Highway Patrol and National Guard, the students felt somewhat safe. That feeling didn’t last long as the minute they stepped off the bus, they were arrested. Once the local jails were filled to overfl owing, the students were transferred to one of the nation’s harshest jails, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which was commonly known as Parchman Farm. While at Parchman, the students were placed on Death Row. They were only issued underwear. They were not allowed to exercise or receive mail.
All of this was intended to break their spirit. But it didn’t. Instead, it allowed them to keep their dreams of freedom alive through songs and the use of their imagination to take them beyond the walls of the dreaded farm.
The stories of these brave students are chronicled in The Parchman Hour at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre from March 7-24. The show, directed by the author of the play, Mike Wiley, is one of the most anticipated shows of the season.
“It has been a fabulous journey thus far,” said Wiley during a recent interview. “It has been a pleasure to know and work with the great professionals at the CFRT to get this production going.”
Wiley was inspired to write the play following a visit with one of his friends.
“Bill Saone is a writer and playwright, as well as a musician who most people know from the Roof Top Singers,” explained Wiley. “I was sitting on his porch with him one afternoon in Maine chitchatting about things when he mentioned his time in jail in Mississippi. That gave me pause, because I thought I knew a great deal about the man and his history and hearing he had been in jail really came out of the blue.”
Once Wiley delved into his friend’s story, he found that he had been jailed while traveling as a Freedom Rider. He shared his story of his journey south and those of his fellow college students. The story gripped Wiley and he couldn’t let it go.
“These college kids literally fi nished their exams and then wrote wills and got on a bus and traveled to the Deep South to try and stop segregation,” said Wiley. “I realized this was a story that needed to be told.”
Wiley spent a lot of time getting to know other Freedom Riders and documenting their stories. They told him stories of abuse and terror. More importantly, they told him stories of triumph. They talked about how they overcame hate with music and imagination. They told him about the Parchman Hour. It was the time when the prisoners came together to sing and act and generally encourage each other. The state could take away their freedom of movement, but not their freedom to dream.
The Parchman Hour was originally staged at PlayMakers Repertory in Chapel Hill. Wiley has traveled to various universities to share the story with students hoping to inspire a new generation of idealists. While in Mississippi, he was astounded to fi nd that one of the Freedom Riders was in the audience. This young man was a native of Mississippi, but joined forces with the Freedom Riders. He was brutally whipped for his involvement.
“We were doing the Q&A after the show when he stood up and came up on stage. He said this was a story that needed to be told,” said Wiley.
The show that is set to debut at the CFRT is an updated script and features music that seamlessly adds to the tale. The actors and musicians who have been cast have found that rather than just telling the story, they have found themselves immersed in it. They have been changed by their involvement.
As one cast member explained, “This show makes you think about what you would do if you were faced with this kind of racism, with this kind of injustice. Would you act? Would you be moved? How would it change you?’
That’s a question that Wiley hopes many will wrestle with after seeing the show. Beyond that, he believes it is an important show in the way it shows the resiliency of people and the way it deals with a really bloody time period in our history.
The show will open on March 7 and will run through March 24. Throughout the run, there will be several special events.
Freedom Riders in the ‘60s Saturday, March 9, 5 p.m. at CFRT. Dr. Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, founding chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will talk about his personal experiences in the Civil Rights-era and give a contextual framework for the Freedom Rides. This is a free event.
Author Visit Monday, March 11, 7 p.m. at Headquarters Library. Wiley will discuss the play. This is a free event.
Pre-Show Conversations Each evening before the performance at 6:45 p.m., there will be an informative pre-show talk about the production, which will give insight into the time period and the historical characters.
For tickets and more information, visit www.cfrt.org.