Documentary theater playwright and actor Mike Wiley has brought to life historic events that have shaped this country and its racial landscape, giving performances on the Montgomery bus boycott and Jackie Robinson’s integration into Major League Baseball. Now, he’s highlighting the events that led to the killing of black teenager Emmett Till — and the show is coming to Clinton.
Wiley will bring the performance, entitled “Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till,” on Friday, March 31, to the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center in Clinton. The play chronicles the murder, trial and confessions of the men accused of Till’s murder. His killing was seen as a catalyst for the emerging Civil Rights Movement.
The performance, slated for 7 p.m., is being presented and co-sponsored by the Sampson Arts Council and the Clinton chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. It is being made possible by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council.
Wiley has spent the last decade fulfilling his mission to bring educational theater to young audiences and communities across the country. Starting out, Wiley found that the light was not being shined on key events and figures in African-American history, so he started his own production company.
In “Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till,” which was also a 2012 critically-acclaimed film starring Wiley, he recounts the true story of Till, a 14-year-old black Chicago youth, who in 1955 traveled to the Mississippi Delta with country kinfolk and Southern cooking on his mind. However, he walked off the train and into a world he could never understand — a world of thick color lines, of hard-held class systems and unspeakable taboos.
Till disappeared and his body was later found mutilated. He was said to have stepped into a gruesome fate by whistling at a white woman, a story that was recanted earlier this year by Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman linked to that 1955 murder of Till. She told author and historian Timothy Tyson, a university professor and senior research scholar at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, that her claim was false. Tyson released his New York Times best-selling book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” on Jan. 21, 2017.
Wiley, who has also served as distinguished faculty at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, has collaborated with Tyson in the past and they are teaming again in bringing “Dar He” to the stage.
In his performances, Wiley has explained the legacies of Till, Henry “Box” Brown and more. Some of his recent works include a one-man play based on Tyson’s memoir “Blood Done Sign My Name” and “The Parchman Hour,” an ensemble production celebrating the bravery and determination of the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to desegregate Southern interstate bus travel in 1961.
In some of his one-man performance, Wiley will play up to 20 characters.
Wiley has a Masters of Fine Arts from the UNC-Chapel Hill. In addition to his numerous school and community performances, he has also appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and National Geographic Channel and has been featured in Our State Magazine and on PBS’ North Carolina Now and WUNC’s The State of Things.
Byron Woods, writer for the Independent Weekly in Durham, lauded Wiley’s series of “intensely researched and brilliantly crafted original one-person shows that have illuminated significant events in America’s long racial history.”
He credited “Dar He” for its “scrupulous accounting of the very real divisions among the leaders of the civil rights movement, their own crises of conscience and cowardice, and the ‘measured political responses of government representatives (including then-U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy)” for adding “appreciable depth, dimension and veracity to the times depicted.”
Wiley, 43, said some are not willing to look at the darker side of history, so certain stories are not told or they are watered-down.
“First, many people are unwilling to look at the role they or their family played, unable to accept the darker side that sometimes goes hand-in-hand with otherwise proud histories,” said Wiley. “Parents and school teachers duck the subject, thinking that if you don’t teach it, it never happened. But if we don’t teach it, we stand a much greater chance of repeating it with more tragic consequences. That’s why we’ve got to talk about it.”
He said documentary theater can offer the avenue to deliver that talk.
“Documentary theater can be as literal as court transcripts,” he stated. “What I do through interviews, diaries and newspaper articles is incorporate direct sources into a play that represents all of the people involved — in one place, on stage — depicting historical facts and events.”
Tickets for the performance are $15 and $10 per person and may be purchased at Sampson CenterStage Box Office located in the Agri-Exposition Center, 414 Warsaw Road, Clinton, or by telephone at 910-592-7200. Tickets may also be purchased at the door on the night of the performance.
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