The Parchman Hour, on stage at the Cape Fear Regional Theatre, may be the most socially relevant and important theatre to be staged this year in Cumberland County. Now, having said that, I realize it might sound pompous or may even make you want to run screaming from the idea of seeing the play — but don’t let it. This is the must see of the season.
Written and directed by Mike Wiley, the show doesn’t just entertain; it challenges you to look inside, to do a reality check on your own ideals. As uncomfortable as that sounds, I would be remiss not to say that while it is a sanity check, it is also outstanding theatre. It entertains as well as illuminates the human condition, while visiting a dark era in our nation’s history.
The show chronicles the hot summer of 1961 and the Freedom Rides to integrate the segregated bus lines of the South. Historically accurate, the show focuses mainly on the tribulations of nine of the students/activists who traveled South during this turbulent summer. The cast, comprised of just 16 individuals, is required to play the role of a number of characters that cross both gender and racial lines. As a whole, the cast was without equal.
Wiley, who knows the material intimately, reworked the script for the staging of the show at the CFRT. Having drawn rave reviews across the nation, it was its opening at the Playmakers Repertoire in Chapel Hill, N.C., that drew the attention of the CFRT Artistic Director Tom Quaintance. In the notes for the show, Quaintance wrote:
“Sometime in the middle of the first act, I started to shake,” wrote Quaintance, who is the son of an Alabama Civil Rights lawyer who was intimate with the Freedom Riders.“
I grew up in a household where the Civil Rights movement was central to our identity, yet I knew very little about the Freedom Riders and their amazing story.”
After seeing The Parchman Hour, Quaintance knew it was a project that he had to bring to the CFRT stage.
“It was one of those ‘This is why I do what I do’ moments. This is why I became a theatre artist. This is why I moved my family across the country, so I could be in the position to support a production like this in a community like Fayetteville.”
Quaintance believed it was a show that the community would embrace, and from what I saw, he was right. To talk about a show like The Parchman Hour, you have to be honest. So, I am honest in saying that as much as we as a community tout our diversity, we remain a fairly divided community. Those who are regular patrons at the theatre will, if they are honest, acknowledge that the audience at most of the shows is fairly white. That wasn’t the case with this show. This show brought our community together to talk about one of the most divisive times in our nation; I believe that common ground was found.
You cannot see this show without having your biases, even if you don’t admit that you have them challenged — and that goes to people of all races. While the content is heavy and will leave you on the edge of your seat, you will feel uplifted at the ability of the human spirit to overcome hate and ignorance. The story is told through short vignettes that are interspersed with music; music that will uplift your spirit, even while it chronicles the sorrow of others. It was in music that the students and activists who were imprisoned in Parchman found their salvation and it is where we find it in the telling of this story as well.
While the story and Wiley’s telling of it is the ultimate star of this production, the performances by cast makes it shine.
Tim Cain, who portrayed Jim Farmer, the director of the Congress of Racial Equality (the group who organized the Freedom Rides), showed strength, wisdom and above all faith in the face of unadulterated hatred. What I particularly liked about Cain’s performance was the degree of humility that he brought to the role, rather than coming off as an extremist, he played the role of an elder statesman, who in the end, had to confront his own weaknesses. Sonny Kelly, a local minister who works with Fayetteville Urban Ministry and Christ Gospel Church, was a stand out. Kelly, who played the role of Stokely Carmichael, brought a passion to the role that shone through in his singing and dancing.
Joy Ducree Gregory has a beautiful singing voice that can make you see heaven even in the face of hell. Her mastery was matched by Hazel Edmond. Quickly becoming a favorite on the CFRT stage, Samantha Fabiani wowed with her vocal prowess. Lack of space prohibits me from mentioning everyone, but the performances by the cast as whole were stellar.
The show runs through March 24. To get your tickets, visit www.cfrt.org.
Photo: The Parchman Hour chronicles the hot summer of 1961 and the Freedom Rides to integrate the segregated bus lines of the South.