The Parchman Hour at the Guthrie Theatre

David Darrow and Ensemble in The Parchman Hour. Photo by Dan Norman.

David Darrow and Ensemble in The Parchman Hour. Photo by Dan Norman.

It’s no accident that the program for Mike Wiley‘s Civil Rights drama The Parchman Hour (at the Guthrie, through November 6) references books for elementary and middle school students. These are the folks who most need to see The Parchman Hour: kids. Kids who do not appreciate what their elders went though, the way they struggled, bled and in some cases died for freedoms that youngsters nowadays take for granted. The Freedom Riders (at the center of The Parchman Hour) are heroes. And they are still among us. They deserve – they need – to be celebrated.

The Parchman Hour does this beautifully.

The Parchman Hour tells the story of the Freedom Riders, heroic men and women who put their lives on the line in order to integrate bus stations across the South. The play utilizes photographs of real Freedom Riders, some famous (e.g., James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael), some known only to God, and around them spins narration. Though static, this stuff is fascinating and director Patricia McGregor pumps up the energy level at every opportunity, giving us a play that zips along, and showcases the excellent cast to excellent effect.

And features some truly boffo music. Music director Sanford Moore leads a crackerjack band, playing Gospel/Civil Rights standards (e.g., “Eyes On The Prize”) as well as popular tunes (like Dylan’s marvelous “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Walk Right In”). The actors attack this stuff with passion and zest. One especially appreciates Zonya Love and (I hope I have this right) Kevin R. Free. But everyone is very good.

The acting performances are also wonderful. Terry Hempleman is a one-note racist creepoid, but who could do it better? Stephen Conrad Moore as the conflicted PeeWee will break your heart. And the rest of the Riders, well, they are to a person wonderful. As always, Nathan Barlow got under my skin. Ditto Cat Brindisi, Jared Joseph and why am I wasting my time – and yours. This is the Guthrie. The acting is fab. End of paragraph.

This has to be said: The Parchman Hour (which runs two hours) is relentlessly 101. Introductory. Characters are shallow, with a distressing tendency to screech common-place aphorisms. Much of the material is past-tense. If you’re looking for a more nuanced 500 level approach to the Civil Rights era, well, The Parchman Hour may not completely satisfy.

But if you’re looking for a dyno show, here it is.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.



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