Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Parchman Hour
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of The Realistic Joneses and The Last Firefly


The Cast
Photo by Dan Norman
The Parchman Hour, which opened last weekend at the Guthrie, is a riveting history lesson, a searing re-enactment of 55-year-old events from which we are still reeling today, and a testament to the courage of the Freedom Riders: men and woman, both black and white, who faced white hooded Klan members, fire-bombing, police dogs, beatings and imprisonment, all to push for justice and human dignity. It is also, improbably, entertaining, mainly by way of heart-felt music and sharply staged dance; it even manages to deliver some laughs here and there, albeit of the gallows humor variety. That The Parchman Hour suffers some shortcomings as a coherently scripted play hardly matters when there is so much compelling drama on stage, performed with soaring spirit and unflinching conviction.

Freedom Rides were a major action of the civil rights movement. In 1961, emboldened by Supreme Court rulings, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and its director, James Farmer, called for mixed race groups to board Greyhound and Trailways busses in Washington D.C. intent on traveling to New Orleans and to defy Jim Crow segregation on the busses and at every bus depot along the way. They were met with brutal resistance, police complicity with local Ku Klux Klan cells, beatings that required hospitalization (though some hospitals turned the Freedom Riders away), and arrests.

In Mississippi, Freedom Riders were sent to the notorious state penitentiary called Parchman Farm. Part of the Riders' strategy was to fill the prisons, to strain the penal system and draw national attention to their efforts, and at one time over 300 of them were locked up at Parchman. Conditions were brutal: anal and vaginal searches, only underwear to wear, no exercise allowed, mail censored or withheld altogether. To pass the time and attempt to keep spirits up, the Riders made up shows modeled on the TV variety hours popular at the time, complete with song, dance, comedy skits, even faux commercials. These shows they called "The Parchman Hour."

Mike Wiley wrote The Parchman Hour as a documentary play, the prison entertainments serving as a frame in which to tell the Freedom Riders' story. Actual dialogue spoken by the Riders is frequently used, with each of the original speakers named and depicted on the looming white walls, joined at an obtuse angle, that make up the setting. A focus on eleven persons guides us through the ordeal. Included are major civil rights figures such as James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael, and John Lewis, as well as unheralded men and woman with just as much courage as their better known comrades. Scenes flip back and forth between Parchman and accounts of the first bus-full of Freedom Riders: the beating suffered by future U.S. Congressman John Lewis in Rock Hill, South Carolina; firebombing of their bus in Anniston, Alabama; the wrath of Birmingham's infamous police chief, Bull Connor; mob violence in Montgomery; arrest in Jackson; and confinement at Parchman Farm.

At Parchman we see samplings of the entertainment they devised, but also a hunger strike, an electric cattle prod being used to shock them, and their struggle to remain unified and avoid turning against one another under the strain of incarceration. Dr. Martin Luther King's decision not to join the Freedom Ride is addressed, as is the muted response of President John F. Kennedy and his attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, to the Freedom Rides and the violence against them.

Through it all, music is an ever present force. Music director Sanford Moore conducts a four-piece onstage band (guitar, bass, drums, and Moore on piano) that provides a rhythmic backdrop during most of the show, and that soars during songs performed by the The Parchman Hour's cast. Songs range from folk music of the early sixties to rhythm and blues to gospel to work songs, most of them accompanied by movement choreographed by Carl Flink to heighten our absorption of the situations and feelings being depicted. Highlights among the many songs are a fiercely soulful rendition of "If I Had a Hammer," "The Times, They Are a Changin'," "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," and a performance of "Do Lord Remember Me" carried beyond the rafters by the powerfully voice of Zonya Love.

Along with Miss Love, the entire cast is spectacular. Director Patricia McGregor has assembled a roster of twelve actors, half drawn from the rich pool of Twin Cities' talent and half new to our stages. They work seamlessly as an ensemble, though they have moments to shine individually as well. As actors read the parts of actual Freedom Ride participants, they often across lines of gender or color, placing the focus on their words and actions. Terry Hempleman portrays a deputy sheriff who torments the prisoners, an icy representative of the evil that oppresses the Freedom Riders, and all those of good will, what is referred to as the "beloved community."

The setting, designed by Clint Ramos, is somewhat of an enigma. On one panel of the white walls mentioned above, the words Rise Up are cut out, an imperative that the play makes very handily on its own. A dramatic steel staircase seems to be used arbitrarily, and a luminescent column leaning diagonally, rising from the front to the rear of the stage, is never put to any purpose. The costumes—apparel apt for 1961 before the arrests, and striped prison boxer shorts and slips after that—serve well. Lighting and sound designed by Jiyoun Chang and Luqman Brown, respectively, effectively create contrasts of light and darkness, explosive noise, cries of anguish, and silence. Tom Mays designed the projections which provide constant points of reference, with historic images from the Freedom Rides and depictions of the Jim Crow south, in addition to photos of the real individuals portrayed on the stage.

The one flaw in The Parchman Hour is in the construction of the play itself. The dialogue is certainly gripping—especially when it is the very words spoken by Freedom Riders over fifty years ago—but the movement back and forth, between the torments of Parchman Farm and the road travelled to get there, creates more of a series of vignettes than a through-narrative. The variety show device does not really unify these parts either, as it is inconsistently brought forth—sometimes used to tell the stories, other times seemingly abandoned. While knitting the parts together into a more cohesive work with narrative flow might make The Parchman Hour more artistically satisfying, as it stands, the show lacks for nothing in terms of emotional impact and blazing relevance to the world outside our windows.

The Parchman Hour is an invaluable work of theater, flaws and all. It pays tribute to American heroes who are too little known, provides an historical understanding of a crucial step forward in the struggle for civil rights, and brings home the reason we need to continue to build steps that reach ever higher in pursuit of justice for all. It depicts the human race at its most appalling and most inspiring, and challenges us to choose.

The Parchman Hour continues through November 6, 2016, at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $34.00 - $67.00. Student and 30 & below discounts available. Rush seats may be available 30 minutes before performance, from $15.00 - $30.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Writer: Mike Wiley; Director: Patricia McGregor; Music Director: Sanford Moore; Original Movement Created and Directed by: Carl Flink; Scenic Design: Clint Ramos; Costume Design: Katherine O'Neill; Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang; Projection Design: Tom Mays; Sound Design: Luqman Brown; Associate Sound Design: Reid Rejsa; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zanger; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Stage Manager: Nate Stanger; Assistant Director: H. Adam Harris.

Cast: Sam Bardwell (Actor 1/Forsyth/Stephen Green), Nathan Barlow (Actor 12/Freddie Leonard), Cat Brindisi (Actor 9/Carol Silver), Whitney Maris Brown (Actor 3/Mama Forsyth/J.T. Mulholland), David Darrow (Actor 4/Elwood/H. Thomas), Kevin R. Free (Actor 7/James Farmer), Katherine Fried (Actor 2/Janie Forsyth/Mimi Real), Terry Hempleman (Actor 10/Deputy Tyson), Jared Joseph (Actor 6/John Lewis), Zonya Love (Actor 5/Pearl/L. Collins), Stephen Conrad Moore (Actor 11/Pee Wee), Kory LaQuess Pullman (Actor 8/Stokely Carmichael).


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