So performer Mike Wiley brought along the next-best thing — a single bus seat that he used as an effective vehicle for telling the full story of the Montgomery, Ala., boycott.
Everyone knows that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city transit bus and was arrested in 1955. But as a program by Wiley called “Tired Souls” informed a local audience of more than 50 people, others played a key role in ending a discriminatory practice as well.
In the 1950s South, public transportation was “the most-idiotic and senseless form of segregation,” Wiley said during a 50-minute performance in which he introduced additional key figures in a successful boycott of the Montgomery bus system in the wake of Parks’ arrest.
The head of Mike Wiley Productions in Durham, where the artist also is associated with Duke University, Wiley brought to life lesser-known individuals such as Claudette Colvin, E.D. Nixon, Clifford Dunn and Jo Ann Robinson. He jumped from character to character, employing women’s and men’s voices interchangeably to describe how the historic boycott took shape.
“How do you inspire a movement?” a black-suit-and-tie-wearing Wiley asked in the “female voice” of Robinson at one point. “One person at a time.” Robinson, a black college professor, had attempted to start a political movement in 1949 after she sat in the front of a segregated bus and was screamed at by the driver. But her movement failed, because at that time blacks accepted being sent to the back.
Meanwhile, Colvin also refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955, though she was only 15.
Dunn was a white man who posted bail for Parks, who had been employed by his wife.
But while the playwright and actor specializes in one-man shows, he frequently involved audience members in Tuesday night’s presentation, both children and adults, whom he would pull in to represent various characters in “Tired Souls.”
Wiley even coaxed Fred Deweese, a white Mount Airy resident, into coming up and wearing a curly gray wig to portray 1800s African-American activist Frederick Douglass, with whom the Montgomery boycott was rooted. As Deweese and everyone else laughed at the wig, Wiley explained how Douglass once bought a first-class train ticket, had the audacity to sit in the white-only section and then was forcibly removed — while tearing away some adjoining seats.
Yet Douglass was known by his own people at that time as an “agitator” and a “instigator,” Wiley pointed out.
Another humorous moment in the program came when another local resident, Macon Sammons, was summoned by Wiley to play former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who famously once declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
As Sammons repeated that line at Wiley’s urging, the latter jokingly told him, “You do that too good!”
Wiley explained after the program that humor is an important part of his storytelling technique. “I’m a strong believer in having comedy in everything, because that is the only way you are going to open people up to the more-dramatic moments.”
Having audience members portray various characters also is a way of making the material more meaningful to them. “It increases (their) understanding,” Wiley explained. “You don’t just sit and let it wash over you.”
But despite those techniques, Wiley’s program, which also included audience participation with such songs as “Down by the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome,” highlighted the profound importance the bus boycott played in the overall civil-rights movement.
For much of Tuesday night, the visiting performer took on the persona of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who helped organize the bus boycott. Various segments described how King got involved after Parks was arrested.
But he also took on the roles of white bus driver James Blake, who gave Parks an order to give up her seat to a white man, which she refused. Wiley sat in the bus-seat prop he brought along for the program, and pretended to be steering the wheel.
Wiley’s presentation further described how the black community gradually came together for the effective boycott, including efforts by Dixon, the president of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Eventually, the effort paid off with a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1956 which made segregation on buses unconstitutional.
“Tired Souls” proved informative as well as entertaining to Tuesday night’s audience.
“I thought it was excellent,” said LaDonna McCarther of Mount Airy. “I liked the fact that he (Wiley) involved the audience with his program.”
McCarther also appreciated how the lesser-known figures of the Montgomery bus boycott were illuminated through the presentation, to the benefit of audience members.
“They know about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” she said. “But they don’t know about any other blacks.”
Contact Tom Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1924.