"The legacy of the Freedom Riders is being seen now on Wall Street, it's been in Wisconsin—and all over the world, really," says playwright and director Mike Wiley, pausing before the final week of rehearsals of his biographical civil rights-era drama, The Parchman Hour. The show focuses on an interracial group of activists who were attacked, firebombed and then incarcerated in Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm Penitentiary when they attempted to integrate interstate buses between Washington, D.C., and St. Louis in 1961.
Fifty years after an odyssey that permanently changed the racial landscape of America, PlayMakers Repertory Company gives The Parchman Hour its first professional production.
The play's title stems from an unlikely series of self-styled "variety shows" the inmates produced in the evenings from their cells, a mix of freedom songs, sketches, stories and jokes that provided solace, encouragement and comic relief from the starkness of their surroundings. "Without the freedom songs and the ability to make fun of the situation, they would have had less hope the next day," Wiley says. "The shows gave them a spiritual uplifting that they couldn't otherwise find where they were jailed."
Actors Doug Bynum and Kashif Powell reprise their striking roles as Congressman John Lewis and activist Stokely Carmichael from the original student production, which premiered last December, made the Indy's list of top regional plays for 2010, and toured through Mississippi this spring. The show opens Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Nov. 13. —Byron Woods