They tossed their books aside, packed only essentials and finished writing their wills. With only one goal in mind—to fight racial desegregation in interstate bus travel—the young, interracial Freedom Riders accepted the prospect of death as they rode the bus into the racially divided Deep South in 1961.
From Oct. 26 to Nov. 13, PlayMakers Repertory Company at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will present The Parchman Hour, a play inspired by these courageous youth. Writer and director Mike Wiley began researching the history of the Freedom Riders during his stay in 2010 as a Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke and UNC.
“The Freedom Riders were mostly students,” Wiley said. “These are 17, 18, 19-year-old students from an array of colleges around the country without regard to their own lives aiming to desegregate interstate bus travels in a nonviolent and active way.”
Originally a student production supported by both the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and Department of Dramatic Art at UNC, the play garnered enough attention to become a professional production this year. The Parchman Hour tells the tales of different individuals who were attacked and eventually brutally imprisoned in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm penitentiary. While in prison, the students invented a pastime called “The Parchman Hour” where they would sing songs, tell jokes and stories and read the Bible in order to encourage each other in their ongoing battle.
Producing Artistic Director Joseph Haj saw dramatic potential in “The Parchman Hour” stories and selected the play for PlayMakers.
“It’s important for a professional theatre to look at this aspect of movement. The theme is so underexplored in that moment and that struggle. It seemed like an important thing to produce here at UNC,” Haj said.
PlayMakers has and will continue to host various community events, such as a screening of the PBS film Freedom Riders and pre- and post-show discussions, at various locations in Durham and Chapel Hill.
“It’s about creating a platform for community around the issues of the civil rights movement,” Associate Artistic Director Jeff Meanza said.
Meanza also hopes the conversation will help the audience resist the temptation of considering the Civil Rights movement done and finished. Wiley also agrees that the movement should not be dismissed as the long gone past.
“If history were a neighborhood, slavery would be around the corner and the Freedom Rides would be on your doorstep,” Wiley said.
The closeness of the movement was reinforced this May when the cast of The Parchman Hour was invited to perform at a Freedom Riders anniversary reunion in Jackson, MI. The group had already been touring around Mississippi earlier this year after a brief production at the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC.
“I’ve come to meet a number of Freedom Riders and so many individuals that were touched by the show,” Wiley said.
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The legacy of the Freedom Riders can also be seen in current events like Occupy Wall Street, Wiley said. These people, including many youths, risk losing their comfort and security for equality and justice.
“You’re never too young,“ Wiley said. “It’s never too late. It only takes one person to stand up and say enough is enough.”
In one scene of the play, a discussion about none other than the basketball rivalry between Duke and UNC takes place, reminding the audience that as revolutionary and courageous as the Riders were, they were still college kids. In fact, they were Duke students. They were UNC students.
“It’s not a textbook recital of a historic event, but it’s filled with vibrancy that gets close to people who understood themselves to be at a threshold moment,” Haj said. “They understood themselves to be the beginning of something very important.”
PlayMakers Repertory Company will present The Parchman Hour from Oct. 26 through Nov. 13, with matinee performances at 2:00 p.m. and evening performances at 7:30 p.m.