- Written by Rebecca Evans
- Category: Opening Night with Rebecca Evans
- Published: 06 November 2017
Virginia Stage Company kicked off the second show of their 39th season last weekend with a co-production with Norfolk State University called The Parchman Hour.
The Parchman Hour follows the Freedom Riders, a group of activists who were recruited by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to challenge Jim Crow laws and ride interstate buses in mixed race groups from Washington, D.C. to the Deep South in 1961. Facing frightening mobs of Klansmen along their route, many were assaulted or unjustly arrested; as local jails overflowed, more than 300 Freedom Riders were transferred to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as the “Parchman Farm,” where Virginia Stage Company’s production takes place.
The Freedom Riders faced constant abuse and humiliation during their time in the Parchman Farm, which is still known today as one of the most dangerous prisons in the South. A former plantation, prisoners grow vegetables and work the same fields slaves once did.
In The Parchman Hour, the 13 original Freedom Riders narrate their journeys and reenact historic moments through a made up variety show called “The Parchman Hour” that serves as a means of distraction, escape, and resurrection.
Every member of the ensemble cast, from the onstage band to the activists, holds steadfast to The Parchman Hour’s message of honor and perseverance. All are worthy of mention, but several stand out: NSU graduate Meredith Noël’s thrilling voice, amusing impersonations, and commanding presence show she’s a force to be reckoned with. Current NSU student Jonathan Cooper is seasoned beyond his years, performing intuitively and authentically in his gut-wrenching Act II monologue.
Music Director Roy George crafts some of the best vocals I’ve heard from a local cast with music ranging from spirituals to Bob Dylan songs. Teddy Holmes shines as the strongest singer in the cast with his powerful voice and genuine delivery, and the female cast members stun with their jazzy and impassioned performance of If I Had a Hammer.
Writer and Director Mike Wiley’s abrupt juxtapositions of toe-tapping songs with bigotry and violence make The Parchman Hour a rewarding experiment in storytelling. Act I begins and ends with the same scene, but our interpretation has shifted; the genius of Wiley’s play (and most great art) is that it creates discomfort while making us question our own perceptions.
Two cell-like towers function as a simple, but effective set; mug shots are projected onstage and the cast repeats their name, age, and background as each character speaks. By the end of The Parchman Hour, the Freedom Riders are clothed in modern attire in a nod to the story’s continued relevance. Faces of individuals killed at the hands of racial hatred flash on the screen.
It’s been over 50 years since the Freedom Riders altered the course of history with a bold and dangerous ride, surviving horrid imprisonments through the power of unity and song. Many local theatre companies strive to produce works that speak to our community, but few have been as honest and heartbreakingly relevant as Virginia Stage Company’s latest offering
The Parchman Hour continues Wednesday through Sunday now through November 12 at the Wells Theatre. Visit vastage.org for tickets and more information.