Mike Wiley earned his master’s degree in theater from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2004. It was the same year that “Blood Done Sign My Name,” Tim Tyson’s searing examination of the events that led to the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, was published. Though they would not meet for another two years, Wily and Tyson were on a course that made their collaboration inevitable, the fruits of which Wiley will display at the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center on Friday, April 4.
Wiley, 40, is a versatile actor, playwright and an accomplished practitioner of something called documentary theater. It was seeing Wiley’s performance of one such play in 2006, “Dar He: The Life of Emmett Till,” another true and tragic story of racial hatred and murder, that inspired Tyson to suggest a stage adaptation of his book. “I hadn’t read Tim’s book at that point,” Wiley states. But soon he was pouring over Tyson’s notes and recorded interviews with Oxford residents, black and white. He also conducted his own research.
“Documentary theater can be as literal as court transcripts,” states Wiley. “What I do through interviews, diaries (and) newspaper articles is take direct sources into a play. It comes closer to what the truth is by searching for an ultimate truth using their words.”
Wiley states that a theatrical approach to histories like that of Oxford does something extraordinary by representing all of the people involved in one place – on stage – depicting the facts with precision and taking care to acknowledge nuances that may excite prejudices.
Certain questions can arise when audiences react to Wiley’s work, questions such as, “Why is this still relevant?” and, “When are we going put this to rest?” “A number of responses come to mind,” Wiley states. “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. “Parents and school teachers duck the subject, thinking that if you don’t teach it, it never happened,” he continued. “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. We’ve got to get to know our neighbors.” And Wiley means that metaphorically as well as literally.
Acclaimed gospel scholar and singer Mary D. Williams reinforces the action on stage with powerful and moving renditions of spirituals such as Oh, Freedom, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and Soon I Will Be Done.
As the Nash-Rocky Mount High School Teacher of the Year, Betsy Hester states: “I found myself with the unique opportunity to put my “cash award” for being named teacher of the year to work in a way that could impact both my school and my community. After teaching the book, Blood Done Signed My Name, I believed it was important to donate my “cash award” to bring the play Blood Done Sign My Name to both my school and community. Mike Wiley performed both for our students at Rocky Mount Senior High, followed by a public evening performance at the Dunn Center for the Performing Arts at Wesleyan College. In all my years of teaching, I can think of no greater history lesson for my students.
Mike Wiley is spellbinding, brilliant, sensitive and remarkable. I promise you will be as inspired as I am when you see his outstanding performance and this compelling theatrical work.”
“Blood Done Sign My Name” was a catalyst for change in Oxford, Wiley states. It was Tyson’s personal search for answers about the meaning of truth and justice, as well as a way to examine his relationship with his father, a respected Presbyterian minister who became a villain to blacks and whites after attempting to bring peace to a community engulfed in anger and pain. Wiley visited Oxford to do research and, later, performed the show there. “It’s not tied up neat with a bow,” he said. “But at least people talk to one another.”
Blood Done Signed My Name will be performed on Friday, April 4, 2014 at the Sampson County Exposition Center in Clinton. The performance is presented by the Sampson Arts Council and it made possible by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council; an agency of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, which believes that “a great state deserves great art.” For more information about the NC Arts Council visit: www.ncarts.org.
Tickets for the performance are $8 per person and may be purchased at the Victor R. Small House, located at 709 College St. Clinton, by calling the Sampson Arts Council at 910-596-2533 or online at www.sampsonarts.net. Tickets may also be purchased at the door on the night of the performance.