This month’s “Meet This Artist” is written by guest blogger Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Multiple hyphenate Mike Wiley, an actor-playwright- director-arts educator, came to Pittsboro because he and his wife, Jodi Neely Wiley, were living in Apex and expecting a second child when their first was almost four and they needed more room. And Jodi Neely Wiley, who works at the North Carolina Zoo in Ashboro, needed a shorter commute. And as for Mike Wiley, “For me? As long as I’m close to an airport, I’m good.” Wiley travels. A lot.
But right now he’s home and since he really is the busiest man in show business he is working on not one but two productions of new, sprawling, epic plays—at the same time. Leaving Eden, by Mike Wiley, with music and lyrics by Laurelyn Dossett, runs April 4-22 at Playmakers Repertory Company and Blood Done Sign My Name by Mike Wiley, based on the eponymous book by Timothy Tyson, runs at Raleigh Little Theatre May 11-27.
Leaving Eden is described on the Playmakers website as “a North Carolina Fable” bringing Wiley back to PlayMakers, where he premiered The Parchman Hour in 2011, “to lead us a musical journey across time, unearthing the cycles of history in a small North Carolina town. In this searing new work, where cotton is king in the 1930s and pork processing keeps the town alive in 2016, black and Latino citizens are the town’s economic backbone, past and present. So why do they remain its most vulnerable to violence and hatred? As high-stakes elections loom during both time periods, the young, as ever, have a lot to fight for—and a lot to learn.”
Blood Done Sign My Name is based on an earlier Mike Wiley one-person show adaptation of Timothy Tyson’s acclaimed autobiographical work of history, published in 2004 and based on tragic events in 1970 in the small town of Oxford, North Carolina. Wiley has performed all of the characters in this wide-ranging story sparked by the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Morrow and what came afterwards. He is now engaged in adapting this work he has performed as an actor many times, a work with which he is, therefore, intimately familiar, into a fully realized play for a large ensemble of actors.
So, yes, he sometimes looks a little deer-in- the-headlights.
This all started in New York City in 1999 when he was struggling with the kinds of roles offered to a young African-American male actor. He became fascinated with the story of Henry “Box” Brown, born into slavery in 1816 in Louisa County, Virginia, who was driven to seal himself in a wooden box and ship himself to freedom in Philadelphia. Wiley wrote One Noble Journey based on this story and has performed it as a solo show all over the country. “I knew from the very beginning with Henry “Box” Brown that this was going to be the way I would employ myself. And make art.”
Wiley has spent more than a decade fulfilling his mission to make art that matters and bring educational theatre to young audiences and communities across the country. In the early days of his career, Wiley found few theatrical resources to shine a light on key events and figures in African-American history. To bring these stories to life, he started his own production company.
Through his performances, Wiley has introduced countless students and communities to the legacies of Emmett Till, Henry “Box” Brown, and others. His previous work at PlayMakers, The Parchman Hour, is an ensemble production with movement and music celebrating the bravery and determination of the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to desegregate Southern interstate bus travel in 1961, produced at The Guthrie after its PlayMakers premiere and recently at Virginia Stage Company.
Mike Wiley has a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was the 2010 and 2014 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he continues to teach. In addition to his numerous school and community performances, he has also appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and National Geographic Channel and has been featured in Our State magazine and on PBS’ North Carolina Now and WUNC’s The State of Things.
FROM THE ARTIST
My full name is: Mike Wiley. That’ll do. Mike Wiley.
I live in: Pittsboro, my hometown artist hub.
I knew I was an actor when: I was twelve. I had come down from Virginia to A&T in Greensboro for the summer. My aunt was a drama major and brought me down for a Summer Youth Conservatory in Acting and Science. I hated the science. That same summer the Steven Spielberg production team was starting work on The Color Purple here in North Carolina. I saw this long, long, long line of African-American women standing outside the Paul Robeson Theatre at A&T. I remember thinking, “Wow. This is how it works. This is how people get into major motion pictures.” Yeah. Well. Not so much. But I still remember the song we were singing in that Conservatory production, “Children of the Universe.” [Singing] “We’re children of the universe, don’t you know | Dancing on the edge of time and it’s ours to own | Just children of the universe.” Look at me, I can’t remember grocery lists but I can remember lines. Anyway, when we were about to open the show, I remember asking the director, “Are we actors now?” And he, busy, preoccupied, said, “Yeah, man,” but all I heard was “yes.”
My favorite playwrights are: August Wilson, Bertolt Brecht, and the great solo artists Spalding Grey and Anna Deavere Smith.
Childhood memory: Really? Okay. Here’s one. After a failed audition. This was the first time I auditioned for anything, back in Roanoke, Virginia, after that summer in the conservatory in Greensboro. I walk out and I’m standing there waiting for the bus. I’m thirteen, maybe fourteen, alone, taking the bus. And you know, this is Roanoke, Virginia, most of the other kids, well, they weren’t taking the bus. I was just that determined. Thing is, the production was Alice in Wonderland and I came in there prepared to read the role of the Queen. I thought this was brilliant. I knew I was a character actor. I knew I had something to bring, I had this sense of what the Queen could be, like the Queen could be this…I don’t know, something bigger, played by a little black boy. But these Junior League ladies? They didn’t know what to do with that. They didn’t understand. And so there I am at the bus stop. And it’s raining. We’re all standing in this little wiener stand the size of this table. There’s a woman
standing there beside me. Now, from my adult perspective, I can see she was a transwoman. I didn’t see that then. I just heard her say, “Whose little boy are you?” At the time, I thought she was asking me where my parents were, why I was taking the bus but it felt bigger, even then, like she was saying, “Where do you belong? What is your place in the world?” And that’s just it: I didn’t know but there she was urging me to be who I wanted to be, seeing how sad I was, how failed I seemed to be.
Some jobs I’ve had are: Oh. Well. The usual. Waiting tables. Counselor at a camp. But then, in college, I posed nude to make money. You know, like you do. Okay, yeah, it was an art class, figure drawing. The only hard part for me was staying still.
When I’m not working in theatre, you might find me: Hanging with my family. Or fishing. Haven’t fished in months but it is what I love to do. Fishing in glorious Chatham County ponds.
The craziest thing I ever did was: Um. I think it is right now. Being involved in two dramaturgical new play development processes at the same time. Now that’s nuts.
On my bedside table you’ll find: A cigar box filled with the things that I carry in my pockets daily: change, paper clips, crumpled receipts. And a glass of water.
Most people don’t know I: Umm . . . I don’t know. I’m kind of an open book. I do love flea markets and yard sales. If you look at my work and give it some thought you might figure that out?
My favorite places to go in Chatham County are: Jordan Lake, Haw River, The
Haw River Ballroom.
Some Chatham County artists I admire are: David zum Brunnen and Serena
Ebhardt. And Joseph Megel and Elisabeth Lewis Corley.
Tweets by MIKEWILEYPRODS
https://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/blood-done- sign-my- name/