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A one-man show? Not exactly
Audience is part of play about slave who mailed himself to freedom
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Mike Wiley (at left) plays Henry “Box” Brown as part of “One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom” Monday night at the Black Box Theatre uptown. Wiley is shown with three members of the audience. About 20 members of the audience participated in the show. (Bulletin photo by Harrison Hamlet)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

By HARRISON HAMLET - Special to the Bulletin

The challenge of playing one character is enough for many actors, but not Mike Wiley.

Wiley performed a one-man show that included nearly a dozen characters Monday night for an audience of about 80 people at the TheatreWorks Black Box Theatre in uptown Martinsville. The show was presented by Piedmont Arts.

Wiley included the audience in his performance of “One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom” as well. About 20 members of the audience made their way on stage with Wiley or participated from their seats during the show.

“A Box Marked Freedom” is the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who mailed himself from Virginia to Philadelphia and freedom in 1849. The show also weaves in the brief story of William and Ellen, a married couple who escaped slavery in Georgia when Ellen posed as an aged slave owner and traveled with William to Philadelphia.

Although the play is a work written by Wiley, it is based on a true story.

The show was both humorous and tasteful while teaching lessons of tragedy.

“What this play does is it gives those adults an opportunity to be kids again; to see a play in the way that they might have seen it when they were kids,” Wiley said about the audience participation. “It makes it exciting in a way they might not have seen in years.”

Wiley also performed a version of the show Tuesday, which he said would have an even greater focus on audience participation, at Axton and John Redd Smith elementary schools as part of his stay in Martinsville.

“There is a difference between dumbing it down and making it kid-friendly,” Wiley said about adapting his play for younger audiences. “I make it accessible in that I might say a particular phrase or sentence but immediately after I clarify a little bit” for elementary students.

Although the topics covered in “A Box Marked Freedom” included some of the darkest corners of American society in the 19th century, Wiley shared lessons with the audience through his creative use of comedy.

“I had this passion for comedy and really because of my passion for comedy and my desire to work for myself, I decided I was going to write my own one-person show and see if I could do it,” Wiley said. “It was really more of an experiment. I didn’t know if I could do it or not.”

Judging by the audience’s reaction Monday, his experiment was a resounding success.

Wiley drew in audience members and opened them up with laughter from the time the lights came on and he stepped onto the small stage, which is open in all four directions, unlike a traditional three-walled stage.

When audience members came on stage, which began only a few minutes into the show, they often were required to supply sound effects. Wiley teased the audience members and otherwise joked and bantered with the audience for several minutes at a time.

In particular, he seemed to enjoy pausing the show to pose so a young woman on the front row could take pictures with her cell phone. At one point, Wiley was outstaged by Kenneth Staples, an audience member, who took a bow to resounding applause for his contribution to Wiley’s work playing the role of a slave overseer.

These kinds of humorous moments not only drew raucous laughter from the crowd throughout the show, but they set up the intense, emotional moments reflecting the tragedy and pain that came with the era of slavery and the people affected by it. The comedy, according to Wiley, gives serious moments greater impact.

The tale took the audience from “Box” Brown’s birth in Louisa County, Va., in 1816 to the death of his first master and the tragic division of the Brown family, to a tobacco factory in Richmond and the second great tragedy of Brown’s life, when his wife and children were sold away to North Carolina.

It was after the loss of his wife that Brown devised his plan to escape to freedom, a plan that required 27 hours in a small wooden shipping crate, including 18 hours where he was upside down and struggling to survive as blood rushed to his head. He arrived in Philadelphia alive, but Wiley noted at the end of his performance that Brown is the only slave known to have escaped in that manner and lived to tell the tale.

After that, Brown toured the free states speaking to abolitionist crowds in the build-up to the Civil War.

Wiley, who originally is from Roanoke, said he was happy to be performing so close to home. Several of his family members and close friends were in attendance Monday.

“For (my friends and family) to come to a performance and see through the eyes of a theater audience — that’s a different experience for them, and it’s a different experience for me,” Wiley said. “I love sharing one of my greatest loves with them.”


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