A simple black tapestry draped over a folding chair provided powerful backdrops for a humorous-yet-haunting exploration of the practice of segregation Tuesday night during a Black History Month event at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
With a crowd of more than 100 that included both the young and old, actor and playwright Mike Wiley changed accents and personalities dozens of times, portraying in one moment a segregationist and a Topeka, Kan., resident who wants to send his little girl to an all-white school the next.
Wiley’s performance was centered around the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case in 1954, in which the court struck down the practice of segregation.
“He makes history come alive,” said county resident Alice Brim. “He’s entertaining and informative at the same time.”
The event was sponsored through a grant provided with the help of the Surry Arts Council, said museum Director Matt Edwards.
“This is really a spectacular one-man show,” he enthused. “This is the third year he’s performed at the museum, and when we found we had the opportunity to bring Mike back again, it felt like a great thing to do in honor of Black History Month.
“The crowd has been growing every year, and every year more and more people seem to enjoy it.”
Wiley began his program with the haunting sounds of the traditional African-American hymn “We Shall Overcome,” noting that the struggle for equality is not over today.
“Over a hundred years later, we’re still struggling with segregation,” he said, noting that with the changing demographics of the United States, new issues like equal rights for the handicapped and immigration play a role. “Surely, by 2013, we’d be past these issues, but there are some issues that still haven’t been overcome today.”
He said that children today, when he talks to them in schools, brag about diversity.
“That, above all, is something to be proud of,” he said. “We, here tonight, should be able to sit in a room together, black and white, as we are.
“Because there was a time in this country where there would be police and dogs at the door. And that was just 50 years ago.”
Wiley incorporated audience participation into the performance, using audience members to portray Supreme Court justices, to the delight of the crowd.
But the message was serious, and was not lost on the crowd.
“The answers aren’t easy,” he said, immersed in the accent and words of Civil Rights lawyer-turned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “but respect and equality don’t come without perseverance.”
Regardless or race or gender, Wiley said, equality is important to us all.
“Over 50 years later, it’s time to eliminate racism and stereotypes,” he said.
And then he looked directly into the eyes of a child in the front row.
“The ball is in your court.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.