Local Review: “Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders” at Virginia Stage Company
November 6, 2017
By Jeff Seneca
I must admit, with some remorse, that I went into this show not knowing anything about Parchman Farm and not very much about the Freedom Riders. That changed in a hurry.
The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders is co-produced with Norfolk State University Theatre Company. The play is set in 1961, and is a complex blend of historical fiction and non-traditional storytelling. This is woven together to take the audience along a journey with the Freedom Riders to Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm. This was one of the bloodiest and deadliest prisons, and it was also a working farm and plantation.
This background could make for an extremely daunting set design, however upon entering the theater I was taken aback by the creation of Dave Griffie. My first thought as I sat down was that the set was minimalist, yet as I sat there and waited for the show to begin, I began to notice the extreme amount of detail that was included. Mr. Griffie put an incredible amount of work into the realism of the set. The entire set is very aesthetically pleasing — each side almost a carbon copy of the other. As the show progressed, actors were taking pieces from everywhere and this occurred quickly and seamlessly, so much so I almost missed it even happening. I loved how the band was worked into the story and how the different platforms created cells out of overhangs and absence of space. This set was truly a wonder to see.
While waiting for the production you are treated to a wonderful clip of period projections by David Rawlins. Commercials, cartoons, sports clips, newsreels and so much more grace the screen between the sets. I will say from personal experience that videos in a production are extremely hit or miss, however in this production, they were definitely a hit. I did have some issues pre-show, from not being able to see part of the screen — however it is also played on two portions of the cell walls as well, so you can pick it up there. I also thought there was one musical number that might have benefited from not having focus taken away by the projections; however overall, they added to the power of the show, driving home the point that these were real people and not just characters on a stage.
Costuming by Grier Coleman was spot on. Though much of the production took place in prison shorts and t-shirts, the costumes that were used for the characters before their incarceration were timely and definitely complimented each and every character. I must tip my hat to the costuming of the band members in prison uniforms as well. All too often we either see the band all in black or perhaps costuming makes them stand out too much. This time they blended seamlessly into the production.
Technically, this show was almost flawless. Michael Boso put together a wonderful sound design. The electric zaps and explosions were amazing, and the dog howling during a “solo” definitely added another layer to the production. The volume of the performers was perfectly accompanied by the band and really the only issue I had was pre-show. I couldn’t hear the sound for the pre-show clips. I am not sure if this was a sound issue or if it could be credited to an overly boisterous opening night crowd. David Castaneda did a remarkable job with lighting. I loved the lights in the set and they fit the set design beautifully. The lighting design was very complimentary to the mood that was being presented by the actors and really added to the performance. There was a shadow on one of the actresses for some of her lines, however I was not sure if it was the design or perhaps she was a bit too far upstage at the time. Overall a well lit show.
Roy George should take a great deal of pride in his work as Musical Director. The show had some huge musical numbers and each of the cast members rose to the challenge. They were loud, boisterous and beautiful and each took their turn amazing the audience. Once or twice there seemed to be a slow start, however the performer would soon find their groove and finish out splendidly. My only issue with the show musically had nothing to do with the cast, it was the audience. Twice the audience was invited to clap along with the music and both times it sounded like a smattering of applause. This is the risk you run when asking for the audience to help, however it speaks volumes to the cast and the band that they were able to keep beat through that.
The choreography in the show was simplistic. I cringe as I use that word because I know anyone who had designed or learned choreography knows that there is nothing simplistic about it. However, there are those that expect musicals to have huge elaborate dance numbers and this show was not about that. The choreography by Aya Shabu was not about huge showy moves, it was about telling a story. Movements were not superfluous, they were well thought out and each told an important part of the story. The actors were in sync and their movements expressed their emotion in every foot stomp and every arm raise. It went along so beautifully with the music and it worked so amazingly.
The show was written and directed by Mike Wiley, and you could easily see his passion for this piece of history in every line that was uttered onstage. The show has been described as “electrical,” “having racially charged language” however one word from the show described it for me: visceral. The script is honest and true to itself and does not, nor does it have to, make apologies to anyone. It had bits of humor interlaced. I did learn some new your momma jokes, however its main goal is one of education. We are constantly reminded of each of these brave freedom riders and told their stories. It was an uncomfortable script; however, it was uncomfortable in a way that we need because this is not a story that is from 1961, this is something that many are still dealing with today. Mr. Wiley used every available space on the stage and his cast was always involved in the scene. With so many people spread so far apart, it would be extremely easy for someone to get lost in the shuffle and he does a remarkable job keeping them all invested with small movements and actions. His Fight Director Benjamin Curns created some tense scenes and Stage Manager Kristin Loughry kept everything humming backstage.
The cast of The Parchman Hour is an ensemble of amazing talent. I feel like I must point out Phillip Martin, who played Deputy Tyson. I am not sure that I have ever disliked a character so strongly in my entire life. This is a credit to his acting talent because he has created a sadistic and deplorable excuse for a character that one can only shudder at. Another bright spot, in an already lit cast, would be Jonathon Cooper, who played Freddie. Mr. Cooper had some very funny lines and his repartee with Christopher Lindsay’s Stokely was spot on. He truly shined in his mattress scene. There was such sadness, yet pride wrapped up the scene, which included Pee Wee, played by Anthony Stockard. This cast amazed me with such great range and acting talent across the board. As said before, the singing was incredible. So many amazing talents on this stage that there was never a dull moment nor a flat note. Daniel S. Hines and Benjamin Curns both spent much of the show displaying wonderful caricatures and spot on comedic timing… and then out of nowhere they had solos that made me sit up in shock. Dee Dee Batteast poured everything she had into each of her numbers and it showed. Meredith Noel brought it every time she sings and really stood out to me whenever she was featured. In truth, each and every member of this cast, plays and sings their parts to perfection!
Truly my only real issue with the show was two very small moments I felt took away from the overall message. One at the very beginning happens so fast I am not even sure that I heard correctly. I thought I heard Donald Trump say “Disrespect” in a montage of sound clips, and to me that did not fit. Also, later on, one of the actors clearly pantomimes the President with “I do. I do.” Most likely this was done for a quick laugh — which it gained, however, (and this is nowhere near a political statement or stand) I felt that the work done on the previous song and dialogue to get me emotionally invested was done a disservice. Being that he was only 15 when these events occurred, I felt that it wasn’t timely and it jerked me out of the story.
This story truly educates those that open up to it. Do not go to see this show expecting to see a show about the civil rights movement. At it’s core, The Parchman Hour is about civility. About how we as humans are supposed to act, not just in 1961, but also 56 years later in 2017. We do not say Sir or Ma’am to someone because of the color of their skin, but because of the purity of their soul. The buses may not be loading up to head to Mississippi, but that does not mean that there isn’t still a problem that we need Freedom Riders to attend to. Whatever your beliefs, this is definitely one show that you do not want to miss.