Chatham performer, playwright Mike Wiley tells history in multiple places

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Nationally known actor and playwright Mike Wiley is something of a local legend.

He’s spent the last decade bringing educational theater to schools and communities in Chatham and across the country, emphasizing key events and figures in African American history.

Through his own company, Mike Wiley Productions, Wiley introduced many students to the legacies of important, but often relatively unknown, African American historical figures.

And in 2020, the start of the pandemic and closure of schools and theaters across the country required Wiley to pivot — leading to the creation of eight virtual performances available online and by DVD.

Wiley, who has a masters of fine arts from UNC-Chapel Hill, was the 2010 and 2014 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in documentary studies and American studies at UNC and Duke University. In addition to his numerous school and community performances, he has appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and National Geographic Channel and been featured in Our State magazine, PBS’ “North Carolina Now” and WUNC’s “The State of Things.”

Wiley is also a founding board member of School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA), a Chatham-based charter school set to open next fall that is focused on using the arts and culturally responsive teaching to empower Black and brown boys.

Wiley previously told the News + Record he’s seen the positive impact arts can have for students as a playwright and artist in residence at multiple schools.

“Here’s an opportunity to really focus on those young men who, perhaps without the kind of focus that SABA could give them, may not get up in the higher echelons of boardrooms or be doctors, lawyers, film directors, artists, visual artists, performing artists,” he said in July 2020. “They may not see themselves in those roles until someone shows that is a possibility and that’s not always apparent in a traditional public school setting.”

This week, as February’s Black History Month wraps up, the News + Record spoke with Wiley about his virtual performances along with his hopes for what students gain from watching them. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you share more about your virtual performances and what they entail?

There are eight different selections of virtual performances. Each one of them is a production of one of my solo plays — ranging from “One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom,” which is about Henry “Box” Brown, this enslaved man who mailed himself from Richmond, Virginia, to Philadelphia in 1849; to “The Fire of Freedom,” story of Abraham Galloway, North Carolina Senator, escaped slave, union spy; “Brown v. the Board of Education: over 60 Years Later,” which is about the Brown v. Board of Education decision and brings it into the present as well; “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which is my adaptation of Tim Tyson’s book of the same name — that is myself, as well as gospel vocalist Mary Williams, singing throughout that particular piece.

I decided when the pandemic hit in 2020 and I saw that 2021 was going to devastate theaters, especially touring productions that specialize in performances for colleges, secondary schools, communities, and so on and so forth — I realized that I was going to have to pivot to be able to sustain my own business. This was also at a time in this country when there was this recognition of the harms that have been done to Black Americans and people of color for generations, and realizing people were going to need performances like mine, perhaps, to talk about, to engage in, to spark dialogue.

So in that, I asked and was offered the stage at The Clayton Center in Clayton, North Carolina. Scotty Henley, who is the director of that performance space, reached out to me through my agent and said, “How would you like to just shoot your performances here on this stage? We’ve got staff, we’ve got technicians that are not able to work as much because of the pandemic, and having you here would give them something to do.” So I jumped on the opportunity, and we took the summer of 2020 putting my performances on film … and had them ready for early January when folks started asking for virtual performances. It really worked out great, and they’re still working out really wonderfully because, of course, there are a number of communities and schools that are still wary of having performers in their space, having large audiences together. And so they’ve continued to ask for those virtual performances. So, it’s been helpful for everyone.

You mentioned these performances were very much a result of pivoting during the pandemic. What changes have taken place since then, and what have you learned over the process?

Oh, gosh, you know, because I am a solo performer, I’ve always considered myself flexible, right? Meaning, if a particular performance space is not available, and someone says, “We’re going to have to use this other performance space for today’s show,” I’m a solo actor, sure, fine, that works for me, absolutely no problem. It’s just me, myself, and my production manager who comes along with me to run the technical aspects of all of my performances, so all of these things together are things that normally happen. But then the pandemic hit, and so it meant that performances were being postponed — rarely canceled, but postponed, and postponed multiple times. So when it looked like we were going to be able to go back to work and perform publicly last summer or late spring of last year, it was postponed again, and again and again.

In fact, I’m currently performing, going out on the road even today to perform shows that were scheduled for last year or a year before last. And so it takes that kind of flexibility, but also I’m blessed to have those things to have to deal with — some performers have had whole seasons canceled and not rescheduled. So I’m lucky that some places decide, “OK, well, I can’t really have you in my space just yet, but let’s go ahead and have a virtual performance,” or it’s become a hybrid, where I will perform live from The Clayton Center with five cameras on me and people at home watching, which we’ve done a few times before, and then I’ll immediately do a talk back from there, or I will come to their space, do a performance and then for the two weeks after the performance, they will stream the recorded version of the same performance. What it does is it allows people that want to come to whatever performance space it is to come see the performance live, and those folks who still aren’t comfortable with that can stay home and have access to it for a week.

Are you partnering with any schools in Chatham?

I’ve been truly blessed in Chatham County because of the great partnerships that I have forged with the Arts Council here. Cheryl Chamblee and the other lovely individuals at the Arts Council have been supportive of not just my work, but just my philosophy over the past 10 years or so. I actually just finished a week-long residency in the schools, and so I performed my Jackie Robinson play for Moncure School and then spent two days in the classrooms there as part of a residency on writing and theater performance. Then I performed my Jackie Robinson play for North Chatham Elementary School, and then spent two days with their classes talking about what I do — drama, as well as a writing workshop.

Why do you see these performances as being useful, particularly for students and in-school settings?

Well, they are a supplement to what the teachers are able to teach in the classrooms, right? They are a way to make history walk and talk, stand up out of the textbook and off the computer screen, in a way that invites them to explore the history in a dramatic way that sticks with them in their memories and in their interest for years to come. I hear from folks who have seen performances in their childhood who are now teachers, saying, you know, your play influenced my life and I’m now a teacher in such and such. A person sent me a lovely email from Seattle, Washington, saying that they had enjoyed my performances several times when they were in elementary and middle school, and now they are a teacher in Seattle working with their diversity and inclusion committee at the schools. That my plays happen to have stuck in her mind for that many years now makes me feel old, but at the same time makes me feel very proud.

You recently sent out your newsletter with a Black History Month tagline promoting the performances. Do you find that you usually have a spike in schools using some of these performances during Black History Month?

It’s my busiest time of the year. It really is — January, February, March, because of MLK Day, then Black History Month and then folks that weren’t able to get me in Black History Month, because the month is so crowded actually booked me in March. So the first three months of the year are my busiest months of the year.

The virtual performances have really helped that because in the past, I and my agent, who lives in Durham, would find that there are so many times where someone would call up and say, “Can we get him on this specific date?” And more often than not, I’d booked that date two years ago. Every once in a while folks lucked out, but now the virtual performances give one the opportunity of being in a few places at once. Today (Feb. 14), for instance, I’m heading up to Morganton, North Carolina, to perform at Western Piedmont Community College, and at the same time, you know, students in Chapel Hill are able to watch Brown v. Board of Education and nobody loses out. Or the students at East Millbrook Middle School in Wake County are able to watch “Tired Souls: Martin Luther King and the Untold Stories of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” All of these places are able to benefit from these stories and this history, even if I am not there in person.

What are some of your main hopes for how these performances are used and what students get out of watching them?

My hope is that they have a continued interest in the deeper understanding of American history — how we all got to where we are now, because we can’t really have a complete understanding and appreciation for where we are in the world today without understanding where we have come from and the leaps and hurdles that it took to get to where we are. We cannot have an understanding for the sacrifices made without understanding who made those sacrifices.

For more information about Mike Wiley Productions, or to buy a DVD or schedule a performance in your school or community, visit his website.  

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