"Parchman Hour" is lively theatrical entertainment, though lighter than might be expected
By Mal Vincent
November 2, 2017
"The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders” is a play within a play, staged in a Mississippi prison as a diversion to keep up the spirits of the inmates, including the young college students arrested for challenging the illegal segregation of interstate bus travel.
Those prisoners were, in real life, reportedly stripped, flogged and submitted to other forms of humiliation designed to “break” them, so it is more than a little ironic that the play’s most effective moments are its musical ones. It is a better show than it is a social statement.
This comment is meant to be descriptive, not critical, because “Parchman” – as delivered by a cast of some 19 obviously committed actors and singers – is effective, well-staged theater. It is, though, surprisingly haphazard in its dramatic moments, as sometimes happens when one attempts to create a play out of varied historical experiences.
It is written and directed by North Carolina writer Mike Wiley, who stands in the tradition of history recorders who have used African tribal song, drum and story to connect and preserve ancestry.
Some of the very properties of song – its soothing, cajoling and rhythmic elements – allow the audience to easily get off the hook, as do Wiley’s novel uses of “Walk Right In” as an opener to prison life or “If I Had a Hammer” as a part of a hunger strike.
Some of the most potentially dramatic moments just begin to evolve and then are dissipated. It is perhaps best that the staging of the violence is more implied than actual. This allows the audience to draw on its imagination – and perhaps its guilt. If it was Mary Poppins who said “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” it was Martin Luther King who suggested that America had to take the medicine – and use it to heal. There’s maybe too much sugar here.
As historical documentary, “Parchman” is weak.
The play-within-a-prison setting may be a nod to “Man of La Mancha.” The emcee of this prison show declares himself as “blacker than Bob Hope and prettier than Jack Paar” and, indeed, the ensuing entertainment is often awesome with its magnificent voices under the musical leadership of Roy George.
The seductive version of “If I Had a Hammer,” led by Ja’Keetrius Woods, is wonderfully original. Just as remarkably, Anthony Mark Stockard lends a newly intimate and dramatic touch to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” And Teddy Holmes soars with a version of The Rooftop Singers’ “Walk Right In,” backed by a glorious chorus that obviously is primed and ready to deliver. Jonathan Cooper adds a welcome hint of comedy.
But the chronology of the blurred “events” is confusing and sometimes questionable. Important matters are raised but not pursued – touched briefly before the next song. Major possibilities for drama are there. For example, how did the young students from wealthy backgrounds adjust to their fellow riders, and vice versa? What was the reaction when Martin Luther King declined to join the Freedom Ride? The moment is quickly glossed over by a too-obvious rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”
Of particular interest are references to the Kennedy brothers and whether they will help or just give lip service. Robert Kennedy is wonderfully suggested by a pint-sized actress from Chicago named Dee Dee Batteast, who can belt out a song like a woman three times her size. (She is one of four Equity professionals in the cast.)
Efforts at the curtain to lift the treatise from documentary theater to current social politics are strained – a seeming afterthought addition of slain persons not associated with the Freedom Riders. In a way it gives the original riders, or current civilization for that matter, no credit for any progress in the 56 years that have passed since. Is any credit due? We hope so, but that potent question is not likely to be successfully explored in the few moments hinted at here.
The Parchman prison farm, a men’s high security prison that still exists, first admitted 45 male Freedom Riders – 29 blacks and 16 whites. At one time, it held 300. Men as well as women were held. Most were bailed out after a month. These are not facts you will get from the play, but they would have helped.
The ensemble cast, largely from Norfolk State University’s theater program, fully deserved the standing ovation they received.
While the evening’s greatest worth is in its music, this is nonetheless an outing of theatrical verve. As theater, it is a fine evening out, if lighter than expected.