Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Pensive, but Powerful, Parchman Hour

What do you do when a show punches you right in the gut? 

Photo by Dan Norman.
That was the first feeling I got watching The Parchman Hour, the new show at the Guthrie's McGuire Proscenium Stage. Shortly after opening a bus "explodes" on stage; obviously the explosion isn't literal, but the effect is just as shocking and really takes you aback.

It may help to have a little more background. The Parchman Hour is a new-ish play that refers to the time the Freedom Riders - black and white students who rode buses through the American South in the summer of 1961 in hopes of kick-starting racial integration - were put in the Parchman Farm in Mississippi. Parchman Farm (also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary) is renowned as one of the worst jail systems in the country then and now. Placed on a former plantation, inmates are forced into hard labor and face notoriously cruel treatment. 
Photo by Dan Norman.
The show, then, is anchored with the Freedom Riders in their time at the jail, and interspersed with comedy/music they performed for each other to pass the time, as well as flashbacks to other scenes throughout the Freedom Riders' summer at other locations in the South. It was a highly volatile time in history, years before the passing of the Voting Rights act and other landmark civil rights legislation, and was a major catalyst in affecting public opinion of integration.

It's impossible to watch this show without making at least minor connections with our current Black Lives Matter movement. This show affects you viscerally, getting right into your psyche from the get-go with that shocking explosion, and continues throughout the absolutely GORGEOUS music set throughout. I wouldn't technically label this a musical but it sure comes through with some beautifully performed songs. It's been long enough since the major events of the Civil Rights era that we forget sometimes just how controversial the measures taken - which were often as simple as a black and white person sitting next to each other on a bus or in a diner or at a rest stop - were, and how dangerous a lot of those peaceful protests were for the protesters themselves. It took a lot of courage to push progress forward in the 1950s and 1960s; the problems we face today will require the same kind of courage.
Photo by Dan Norman.
One of the things I liked best about this show is that the casting is all mixed up. This is not just true of the cast itself, which is about equally female to male and white to African American, but that each actor plays multiple parts - for example, a black woman might play a white man, a white woman might play a black woman, etc. etc. Certain parts such as Stokely Carmichael (played with passion by Kory LaQuess Pullam), John Lewis (a staunch but warm Jared Joseph) or James Farmer (relatably acted by Kevin Free) stick with the same actor throughout the show, but other actors shift between roles and it really adds emphasis to the real problem of racism. We're used to seeing photos of black protesters being beaten during marches in the Civil Rights movement. How does the context change when the physical image acted before us is a white man being beaten? A white woman? Does that change how we feel about the "rightness" of the beating? Why would that be? There's a lot to be said for the mix-up and the actors handle the transitions beautifully.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I also have to give a shoutout to the musical stars of the show, Katherine Fried and Zonya Love. Fried has a voice that is straight out of a Gershwin musical. It has some really unexpected peaks and valleys and provides an interesting, almost mournful tone, to the music. For one of the best live voices I've ever heard, turn to Love. You know the first time you saw that scene in Dreamgirls where Jennifer Hudson started singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going,"and you didn't know who she was and your soul connected with something brand new and really beautiful? That is what it is like listening to Love, every time she sings. Her voice is out of this world good and it really anchors the show. Watch out Aretha - Zonya Love is coming for you!
Photo by Dan Norman.
The set looks like something straight out of the Walker Art Museum; its sheer white walls with the words "Rise Up" carved into the top, the eerie electric pipe slicing through the middle, the monochromatic benches and simple staircase, evoke a postmodern feel that provides both a blank slate for us to view the events of The Parchman Hour and divorces it from territory. Remove the American South context from the show and this could be any street in Minnesota. Again, the effect is to make the moral undertones seem modern and immediate, and it definitely works. Lighting and projections are also used to their fullest possibilities, mimicking explosions, prison lights, headlights, broadcasting photos and videos of the actual Freedom Riders, and changing from bright sunlight to disturbing dusk in minutes. It's really effective and adds a lot to the show.
Photo by Dan Norman.
I wasn't really prepared for the heaviness of The Parchman Hour on a random Tuesday evening. As mentioned before, the opening of the show hits you like a suckerpunch, and the bruise lingers throughout the show. It's a necessary performance though, especially to provide context to the act of peaceful protest, to explain divisions within a political movement, and to help some of us realize that history does repeat itself. There are so many, many parallels between the Black Lives Matter protests of today and the marches and rides of the Civil Rights movement 50 years ago. It behooves us all to remember those protests, to learn from their mistakes and successes - and to try to do better this time around.

The Parchman Hour runs through November 6. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.