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While UNC’s PlayMakers Repertory Company is still not presenting live stage works due to the pandemic, that doesn't mean they are idle. There are currently four shows streaming from the company's interactive website, where users may buy tickets, choose what they wish to see, and then receive complete instructions on how to download and view their selections. As a part of the company's 2020-21 season, PRC is currently offering Mike Wiley's one-man show of a murder in Oxford, NC. Wiley has adapted the book by a witness to the shooting, Timothy Tyson, and uses the book's title as his show's, named for the spiritual "Blood Done Sign My Name." Wiley has been performing the show since its inception over a decade ago, but the recent filming of the work in nearby Clayton makes this new creation a powerful and dynamic study of justice deferred.
Wiley makes Tyson a main character in the telling of the shooting of a young black man in 1970, in Granville County's Oxford, NC. While we can look back on it now and say it was fully 50 years ago, those of us who grew up in the last half of the 20th century still look back and recall 1970 as not that long ago. And sadly, with the spate of deaths in the news lately, one cannot even say that it is no longer an epidemic. The deaths of Black men from shooting is at an all-time high, with an alarmingly disproportionate rate at the hands of law enforcement. While some may argue the story of the statistics, it is clear that the subject of Wiley's examination is a hate crime, pure and simple, and the subsequent funeral and “trial,” if one could call it that, only exacerbate the hate.
Tyson is the son of a Methodist preacher, Rev. Vernon Tyson. He and his family moved to Oxford to the Methodist Church not long before the shooting of Henry “Dickie” Marrow, Jr. Dickie, seeking to purchase a soft drink in the store of racist store owner Robert Teel, was heard speaking to the wife of one of Teel's grown sons while in the store. For this alleged “crime,” Dickie was chased out of the store and shot three times by Teel in broad daylight in downtown Oxford. Dickie sustained fatal wounds from the shotgun blasts and died enroute to the hospital that same night. Young Tim Tyson was the best friend of Teel's youngest son, and was on his way to the store himself when he was met by an already-wounded Dickie. Tyson witnessed Teel shoot Dickie a second time, and then a third “kill” shot to the head.
I first witnessed Mike Wiley's show in 2008, when it was still a new and touring show in the Triangle. The video is very similar, but even if Tyson had simply filmed a showing of his work, one must understand that a live performance and a video are still two very different animals. This virtual presentation, directed by Jai Bradford, is a tighter, sharper, and more sophisticated version of the staged work. Wiley is himself now an older, more seasoned actor than when this work was new, and his performance in this video is commanding. His presentation is precise, his characterizations sharp and clear, and his intensity is enough to knock you back in your chair. Director Bradford has used his skills to keep the work concise, free from excess movement or distractions, and constantly dynamic. This show never rests; it is a juggernaut from start to finish.
Wiley concentrates on three distinct events: the shooting, the funeral, and the trial of Teel and his eldest son. The telling of Dickie's demise is brutal, despite the fact that we never actually “see” it. The funeral, which would normally have been a quiet, unrecorded event, was instead a tense scene that was witnessed by many – white – State Troopers and a motley assortment of Klan members, all of whom were supposedly there to “keep the peace.” Normally, there would have been a service at the church, and then the attendees would all make their separate ways to the gravesite for the burial, but activists within the group persuaded the congregation to “march” to the gravesite. It was a somber and well-behaved march which did not create trouble. But those same activists then convinced the attendees to continue their “march” to the downtown statue of a Confederate soldier, in order to call attention to the hate crime that caused this necessity. The very formal and controlled procession did not stop there; it continued out of Oxford and down the road to Raleigh, where the marchers intended to engage the Governor about their plight. Needless to say, having been tipped off well ahead of time, when they arrived, the Governor was nowhere to be found.
The final segment of Wiley's presentation is the Skopes-like trial of Robert Teel and his eldest son for the murder. It had long been understood by both sides that the entire White population now backed Teel, and even before the selection of an all-White jury, the prosecution understood that the fix was in. Teel himself, his son and his daughter-in-law, all lied on the stand, saying that Dickie came into the store with a chip on his shoulder and swore at young Mrs. Teel – an act that all who knew Dickie understood to be impossible. But in an unforeseen turn of the trial, a second man took the stand and swore that it had been he, not Teel, who had shot Dickie, and that it had been an accident. Everyone who witnessed this farce knew it to be patently false. Nevertheless, it was allowed to stand, and it created enough reasonable doubt to cause the Teels to be acquitted.
Tim Tyson and his folks, Rev. Vernon and Martha Tyson, left their church and Oxford shortly after this event; its total effect on the Tysons was to sour them entirely on remaining in Oxford. Surprisingly, as told by several characters at the close of the film, the event caused the Black population to put the Whites “on notice,” so that events similar to this one became nil in its aftermath.
Like the staged work before it, Wiley's presentation is accompanied by a number of spirituals, including the show's namesake and a number of other easily-recognized titles, all of which are sung a capella by vocalist Mary D. Williams. Williams has a warm and brilliant contralto voice which lends power and substance to these works, and in turn lends grace and beauty to the show.
Blood Done Sign My Name is a disturbing and powerful stage work. It must be said that a superb recording of the show has created an equally disturbing and landmark video event. The show will be available for purchase via PlayMakers' website services through Sunday, February 7.