Mike Wiley: Reliving History and Recreating Performance Art

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Mike Wiley: Reliving History and Recreating Performance Art

Photo credit: Amanda Odum

     If you have the opportunity to see Mike Wiley perform, don’t try to predict what you’re going to see. Your guesses will probably be incorrect, besides the guesses that you will be entertained, moved, and glad you went. Those will certainly be spot-on.

     Wiley’s performances are one-man historic shows, but that description does his art form little justice. Take his interpretation of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name. The set? An old-fashioned barber chair and a stool on a bare stage. The costuming? Plain shirt and pants. The cast? Mike Wiley.

     You might wonder what you’ve signed on to, and then the stage brims with characters, all coming from this larger than life acting company of one. In a seemingly effortless shift in voice and manner, Wiley portrays everyone – male, female, black, white, old, young, good, bad – in a most astonishingly real, believable fashion.

     If you’re in the audience, don’t get too comfortable, though. You may be called on to play a part, sing as a group, or simply stand. Audience participation is integral to these shows, and it’s not hokey or cheesy; performances are followed by Q&A sessions. A Mike Wiley play is not merely a spectator event.

     Wiley includes the audience in his performances, and this stems from his genuine, likable personality. What started as an interview with him evolved into a three hour conversation. His plays, while not three hours long, work the same way. People show up for an hour play but leave with something much more than an hour’s entertainment.

     Wiley attended Catawba College where he performed in a variety of plays, some dealing with Southern culture. He also studied communications there, which would give him the business and marketing know-how to promote his future work. He lived in Wilmington, NC for a stretch, then returned to his hometown of Roanoke, VA. Wiley also has worked with the Children’s Theatre of Richmond, VA.

     He auditioned for the Shenandoah Shakespeare and began performing with the troupe, an experience that was quite strenuous but transformative to his acting career. “I learned about touring, being on the road, how to perform for a different audience each night,” Wiley says. “I learned about playing multiple characters, audience participation. I put it all into my acting toolbox, but the touring was miserable. We all lived together in a big house with no privacy. But, it was really bootcamp for me. Some people did it several years in a row; I did six months and I was done. It was rough, but it was a great learning experience for me.”

     Then it was on to New York, where the basis for his current productions formed.

     Wiley shares how and why Mike Wiley Productions began:

“I didn’t want to wait for someone to give me a role, to validate my talent. I was in New York, and I missed the South. I knew I wanted to write things with a Southern flavor, and I wanted to employ myself. It was so freeing the day I was training for a restaurant job, and I just said, ‘I am done with this!’ and I left. I didn’t take another job after that unrelated to my work, and I decided I would feed myself with my work. I started researching Henry “Box” Brown. At the time, Life is Beautiful had just come out. Life is Beautiful seems to me in some ways a movie about a father healing his son from the concentration camp by making it a big game – an imaginative storytelling event for his son. Watching the film lightened the load, so to speak. The load was still there, the Holocaust still huge, but it lightened the load, letting you see the world through the child’s eyes and the father’s love.

“One Noble Journey tells that story of one man’s emancipation by using humor and a child’s imagination. I didn’t know if people were going to laugh or be offended that they laughed. It works, though. Only once in the last 13 years have I had a person say, ‘The play was wonderful, but I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t get past the anger.’ And some people just can’t get past the anger to learn a lesson.”

     It’s incredibly fitting that Wiley’s journey to his current performance artistry was so unusual, and that it largely began with telling the story of a man freeing himself through his own ingenuity, shipping himself there. Instead of heading north like Brown, though, Wiley headed back toward home.

     “I knew I wanted to come back to the South. I was at a festival in NC and I realized how much I missed the South. It was green! It was late August or September, and it was hot, but it was beautiful. I moved to Raleigh, finished One Noble Journey, and Man Bites Dog Theater Company was interested in the play. A good friend from the Shakespeare company wanted to direct it, so we put together the show.

     “The play started in late winter/spring of 2000 and did well and I started trying to get it into the schools. I was using a fax machine from a state surplus sale, sending out my information, and it worked.

     “I used a library card and a pencil to write One Noble Journey and started performing it at schools and regional theaters. I was open to do film roles, but I wasn’t waiting, sitting by the phone. I was already working. Now I work so much, I don’t have the opportunity to do film. It’s a balancing act, but it’s a deep blessing. People will have me back to perform repeatedly. They like what I do and how I interact with them. Some people in Hollywood don’t realize that if they’re hard to work with, they burn bridges and people won’t have them back. I just want to do my art, tell great stories about American history, and have that be remembered.”

     Wiley’s plays clearly deal with Southern and African-American history, but he reminds us that this is not a regional or racial history – it is American history. In all his plays, whether One Noble Journey, Blood Done Sign My Name, Dar He (about Emmett Till’s murder and the aftermath), or Brown v. Board of Education: 50 Years Later, Wiley shows the points of view of all the characters as honestly as he can, and to great effect. Audience members can see for themselves the right and wrong without any preaching or explanation from Wiley. He ensures this effect through his acting and writing.

     “I don’t play overtly,” Wiley says. “People make decisions for themselves. The decisions are clear because the facts are there. I don’t have to linger in stereotypes. Take Juror Number Twelve [in the Emmett Till case]. Juror Number Twelve could be anybody’s cousin. He said, ‘Killing’s bad but a beating is a lesson. Do I think they killed him? Even if they was guilty the State of Mississippi was not.’ Here’s a man who knows something wrong has happened but still defends his state. I don’t have to play into a stereotype. I can present the characters as they are.”

     Needless to say, the productions have major impact. “One woman during a Q&A session said, ‘I’ve been on the school board here for thirty years and watching the play was the first time I saw the world from the side of African Americans.’ I think of it as my job to open doors, minds, and hearts to all this history. It’s American history. ‘All a big quilt,’ as Tim Tyson says. For better or worse, it’s all American history. You’ve got to hand it to other countries – South Africa, Germany, Poland – for not destroying the monuments, the concentration camps. We need to be able to visit these things, look at them, study them, and say ‘This should never happen again.’”

     Of course, in dealing with these emotional and often terrible times in American history, some people are less receptive. When asked about this, Wiley says, “Absolutely, people do get defensive. I try not to return the favor of being defensive. It’s why I perform in the manner that I do, using humor and irony. I use these techniques to ease these bits of history into minds and hearts without being accusatory. Past stays past, but we all take a clean look and ask open-ended questions through the performance. There may be no clear answers at the end, but there are questions and statements. In the Q&A at the end, many people talk about their pasts, why they came, what moved them.

     “When people do get defensive about the past, I typically move on and let the performance talk and do the healing for me. I know it works. People say to me, ‘What you do is make this history palatable so everyone can drink from it and apply it.’”

     Most of Wiley’s audiences do take his plays as learning opportunities. He performs at schools and regional theaters all over, and audiences receive him well. When asked about his toughest audience, he gives a surprising answer.

     “Last year, I was performing A Game Apart [a play about Jackie Robinson] at a high school in West Virginia near a popular vacation spot, and I assumed people would be there for a cultural experience. The n-word started flying from four or five guys during the last performance. And the fact that they had it in them to do that, the fact they thought they could do that with no backlash meant at some point, this was condoned. Anyway, this redheaded kid stood up and started walking down to me, fists balled up. I didn’t know what to do, what to expect. And he said, ‘Those guys back there are saying stuff about you and I don’t like it.’ I said to the audience, ‘He’s living the life of Jackie Robinson.’

     “After the performance, the first person to come onto the stage was the principal, and I thought, ‘A teaching moment! He’ll address this!’ But he said, ‘I want to talk to you about classes…’ He didn’t even mention it. Then a teacher took the mic and said, ‘I’ve been teaching here for umpteen years, and some of you are going to college and you’ll get a rude awakening. There are people out there a lot different from you, and we are all God’s children.’

     “They made the guys half-heartedly apologize to me. But, I did find out afterward that the redheaded kid was named Lincoln,” he says with a smile.

     Happily, Wiley’s experience with the teenagers in West Virginia is atypical. It’s also notable that while Wiley’s plays deal with deep, often troubling matters, they are enjoyable. He’s careful to work in humor, but the enjoyment goes beyond that. When asked how he manages it, he says, “I try to infuse my own personality into my work. I’m an easygoing, lighthearted, humorous guy. I find humor in everything, whether in conversation, history – anywhere. What I try to offer is hope and display it through life lessons, past to present, and keep that hope at the forefront. I offer a safe space for a true dialogue, not just about history, but also the present. The plays till that soil.”

     One of Wiley’s most recent projects is a film adaptation of Dar He. The play in itself is impressive, as he presents 36 characters. He had worked with two filmmakers, Rob Underhill and Aravind Ragupathi, to “put multiple Mike Wileys on the screen at one time” in a few short films and “decided to do a full-length production in the same manner. Over the course of two years we did it, all 36 characters, and submitted it to film festivals starting in January. We got into a bunch and got some awards. It’s just another way to get the story out there.”

     And these stories do need to get out there. Often the stories that Wiley presents have been misunderstood or even buried in history beneath other events. He’s an ambassador of history and of the South. In response to the story of an African American woman who refuses to identify as Southern, Wiley says, “Black people built the South! This culture grew out of what Africans were able to bring from their country and meld with this new, scary, strange world. They merged them to find solace, safety, and hope in bridging the two worlds. Where we are with music, language, food, and history, they’re all direct descendants of this combination of Africa and the South. Southern culture is largely African American, maybe more than anything else. So many white families had African Americans there, in the home, doing the day-to-day chores of life that the African culture became ingrained there. Look at the cooking. What we consider soul food today was, in its infancy, a survival skill. What’s served today as delicacies in notable Southern restaurants was slave food years ago. The Southern white and black cultures can’t be separated.”

     Unquestionably, Wiley is glad to be in the South. He says, “When I was in New York, I was in withdrawal from seeing a blue sky, nothing but buildings I couldn’t see over from block to block. I missed personal space, even in the grocery store. At times, I had this urge to explore, practically in DTs because I needed some open air and sweet tea and relaxed, quiet conversation. So much in New York is in your face and loud. Once I relocated, I could see how that works for many people. And, so many people outside here will say this or that bad about the South. But, ask them about their grandparents. You scrape away the modern society’s shine over the South… get them to start reminiscing about a visit, and you’ll see them start to smile and talk about a place where they’ve never really lived, but you’ll find it’s in their blood.”

     Take whatever opportunity you have to see one of Mike Wiley’s performances. Even if you are familiar with the historic events he portrays, it’s well worth your time to see his play and take part in the fellowship. It’s an eye-opening history lesson, a renewing and refreshing experience, and a chance to feel a connection to those who came before, others who are here, and the generations to come.

     For more information about Wiley, his new film, and his performance schedule, head to www.mikewileyproductions.com.

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