Local playwright Mike Wiley has become intimately familiar with the public killing of a black man in Oxford, NC on May 11, 1970. Using the text of a published account of the event by Dr. Timothy Tyson, a then-twelve-year-old boy, written a dozen years later, Wiley has written a show that recreates many of the denizens of Oxford and all of the pertinent events prior to, and after, the killing. The text, written by the son of a Methodist minister who attempted to calm tensions after the shooting, takes its name from an old black spiritual, “Blood Done Sign My Name.” Wiley’s one-man-show version of this story, of the same name, was previously performed at Duke University to wide acclaim.

Wiley has expanded that one-man-show into a full-scale production, which is now showing at Raleigh Little Theatre. This world premiere of Wiley’s work is directed by Joseph Megel and populated with some of Raleigh’s finest actors. On opening night, the playwright and several of the citizenry of Oxford old enough to personally remember the event were in attendance.

While it is difficult to believe that such an event could take place in a small blue-collar town, it is important to remember that this event happened only two years after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Oxford, a rural town in Granville County, was racially divided, and emotions often ran high on both sides. The play begins when the family of ten-year-old Timothy Tyson arrives in Oxford, where Tim’s father, the Rev. Vernon Tyson, would be pastor of the local Methodist Church. The family had come here from Sanford, NC.

Wiley has written roles for nineteen actors, who perform a total of 47 characters. Most of the action takes place in the black neighborhood of Oxford known as Grabow, along NC Route 158. Very quickly into the play, a scene containing a multitude of Ku Klux Klan members takes place in Stem, only ten miles away. Vernon (Kevin Leonard) takes his two sons, Tim (Benjamin Cashwell) and young Vern (Matt Bain), to the event; he wishes for them to see what hate looks like in Granville County. It is a pulse-pounding and harrowing scene.

We spend Act I learning the names and faces of the folks who live in Oxford, both black and white. Vernon must contend with his church board of deacons, some of whom are wholly bigoted. He is befriended by one of his congregation, Thad (Daniel P. Wilson), whose own views on race relations are somewhat akin to those of the church board, though Thad believes that things must improve. The two become allies in Vernon’s attempts to calm what are tense race relations in Oxford.

The play is narrated by the figure of a now-gray-haired Dr. Timothy Tyson (Mark Phialas), who watches all these events unfold on stage. Also watching is Tyson’s younger self (Justin Toyer), who is attempting to understand what happened prior to documenting it all in his book. (As the play opens and we are introduced to the characters in the play, they all enter reading Dr. Tyson’s book.)

We watch as news of Dr. King’s death hits Oxford, and later, the news of a Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro, where the KKK begin shooting anti-Klan protesters. It takes only 88 seconds for them to kill six people and wound a score more.

All of this is taken in quietly by the black population in Oxford, but tensions are high. As one black activist, Eddie McCoy (Germona Sharp), put it, “I lived in Oxford. I didn’t need to get angry at segregation; I was already angry.” Robert Teel, a big, angry white man (Randy Jordan), is visiting his son Larry (Scott Nagel) at his store on Rte. 158. Larry and his wife, Judy (Hope Hynes Love), are outside putting up stock when a young black man, Richard “Dickie” Marrow (JuJuan Cofield) comes to the store to purchase a soft drink. He makes the mistake of addressing Judy familiarly; it is, in the eyes of Robert and Larry, a criminal offense. Robert produces a shotgun. Dickie flees, but is wounded by Robert. As he lies in the street and begs for his life, Larry and Robert beat him nearly to death. Then he is shot again. Dickie dies en route to Duke University Hospital after it is determined that the local hospital cannot stabilize him.

All of these events are portrayed as accurately as possible in Wiley’s masterful adaptation. Act II shows us Dickie’s funeral, the trial of Robert and Larry Teel, and the aftermath as the Civil Rights Movement suddenly comes to Oxford.

This work is a masterful portrayal of actual circumstances, done with a keen understanding by this ensemble cast. Standout performances were given by many, including Juan Isler. In Act I, Isler plays Boo Chavis, a friend of Dickie’s, and in Act II, he plays the prosecutor of Robert and Larry. Two more dissimilar roles could not be had. Isler also serves double (triple) duty as musical director. Kevin Leonard was pivotal as Rev. Vernon Tyson in valiantly trying to bring black and white together in what was a racially charged environment. Also, high-fives to several members of this ensemble that distinctly played as many as seven varied roles in the course of the evening.

Mike Wiley’s powerful and personal reenactment of the Death of Dickie Marrow was created from the book that Dr. Tim Tyson wrote about his own understanding of this terrible event, and its aftermath. Raleigh Little Theatre and director Joseph Megel have recreated the small northern town of Oxford, NC, and many of its denizens, in bringing the account of this tragedy to the stage. This murder was an event that could not stand, and it brought desegregation to one locale in North Carolina. The people acted and persevered. I am reminded of a quote, authorship unknown, that reflects on a better-known axiom. “Evil triumphs, not through the wicked, but through the spineless.” The black citizens of Oxford showed they were not spineless.

Blood Done Sign My Name continues through Sunday, June 3. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.