Mike Wiley’s Work of Art

By Holly Brown, Book Harvest Board, Vice Chair

Have you ever seen a piece of art that fundamentally changed the way you view the world? For some, maybe it was the way Monet turned tiny dots into Water Lilies. For others, following Escher’s twisting, turning staircases tricked the mind into believing that the impossible seemed, in that one small moment, to be absolutely possible.

For me, a moment like this happened about eight years ago when I saw Mike Wiley perform “DAR HE,” his play chronicling the last days and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. As with the play he’ll perform at Duke School this week, “DAR HE” features at least 20-25 characters and Mike portrays every single one of them. That’s right. Every. Single. One. No big costume changes, no elaborate sets – just Mike on stage with a few sparse props. With a turn of his head, a change of voice or tell-tale movement, Mike transforms himself into Emmett at 14, his mother, his elderly uncle, a journalist, and both of Emmett’s killers to name just a few. It’s a site to behold and I guarantee within minutes you’ll forget there’s only one actor in this performance.

And if that weren’t compelling enough, there’s the subject matter. Mike’s works focus on key events and figures in African American history and include, among others, the stories of Henry “Box” Brown (the slave who mailed himself to freedom), participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

Mike has spent the last decade fulfilling his mission to bring educational theatre to young audiences and communities across the country. This week, Duke School will be lucky enough to see “A Game Apart: The Jackie Robinson Story.” While Jackie is a primary focus, you and your children will also learn about other athletes who broke the color barrier in their sports – like Wilma Rudolph, jockey Isaac Murphy and many others. And once again, Mike will portray every one.

In recounting stories like Emmett’s and Jackie’s, it would be easy to become mired in the injustice, ignorance, cruelty and hatred from which this history was born. But somehow, Mike manages to take his audiences on a journey that brings these stories to life, recounts true (and admittedly sometimes difficult) facts, all while weaving in humor, improvisation and the occasional audience participant. I’ve left his plays with my sides aching from laughter, my heart broken just a little, and my mind opened to new ways of viewing this country’s beautiful, complicated history.

I’m lucky enough to be able to collaborate professionally with Mike on a number of projects and I can’t recommend his work highly enough. I’ve seen most of his plays at this point, and I’ve taken my son along to many as well. We’re both better for the experience. The evening promises enlightenment and a great springboard for starting conversations with your children about race and cultural differences within their own community and the world around them.

Mike’s works tease apart and examine the threads of America’s racial history. We’re all a part of this ever-changing tapestry and sometimes we need a guide to help us discover where we fit and how to work together to create something beautiful. History has found its guide and his name is Mike Wiley. I hope to see you on Thursday.

Mike Wiley will visit Duke School to perform “Jackie Robinson: A Game Apart”  on Thursday, April, 20, 2017. Click here to RSVP.

Editor’s note: Mike Wiley is a member of Book Harvest’s Authors’ Circle, and Duke School is a Dream Big sponsor as well as a year-round supporter through book drives, donations, and volunteering. This piece was originally published on Duke School’s website.