Now that the screen version of Tim Tyson's Blood Done Sign My Name has come out in national release, the one-man theatrical version by actor/playwright Mike Wiley should be far more comprehensible. Last week at ImaginOn, before the film came out and without any familiarity with Tyson's memoir, I was pretty lost amid the multitude of characters Wiley introduced at the start of his piece -- while shuttling back and forth across the decades of the story's chronological sequence.
At this laudable example of community-building presented by the Levine Museum of the New South, the presumption seemed to be that everyone in the audience was already familiar with the 1970 killing of Henry "Dickie" Marrow, the trial that acquitted his murderers, and the repercussions that reverberated in wee little Oxford, North Carolina, where the killing took place, and beyond. With copies of his book stacked in the lobby waiting to be sold after the performance and talkback, Tyson himself seemed content, in his introductory remarks, to let Wiley shoulder the burden of the storytelling.
Tyson, the son of a white preacher who tried to mollify racial tensions in Oxford, is shown as both a child participant in the story and as the historian who seeks to chronicle these events. His appearance before the performance prevented disorientation when Wiley, who is black, portrayed Tyson. But the race of the other characters, self-evident on film, is slippery in the early going of this intricately racial drama.
If the multitude of characters in the exposition often came across as a self-serving demonstration of Wiley's virtuosity, that virtuosity remained impressive. As the storytelling settled into its linear, chronological groove after the murder, Wiley's ability to differentiate among his key characters was something we could comfortably take for granted.
Teamed with vocalist Mary Williams, Wiley textured his localized drama with musical dimensions that evoked the wider civil rights struggle -- from slavery ("Go Down, Moses") right on down through the tumultuous '60s ("Oh, Freedom" and "We Shall Overcome"). A couple of times, as the script chronicled the rallies and a march on Raleigh that occurred in the wake of the murder, Wiley and Williams called upon the audience to participate in the songs and chants that affirmed the solidarity of the oppressed against their oppressors -- giving us the roles of those brave demonstrators. A movie cannot reach out to us that way.
While the portraits of the Tysons show us the divisions among the whites of Oxford, Tyson and Wiley delineate no less sharply among the blacks. Some of them continue to espouse the non-violent teachings of Martin Luther King after his assassination, and some have moved along to the scorched-earth inclinations of the Black Power movement.
We were asked to experience their impatience in the famed call-and-response. "What do we want?" Freedom! "When do we want it?" Now!
The drama became more poignant in Act 2 as we faced the pre-determined outcome of the murderers' trial before an all-white jury. In a parallel injustice that happens with the same inevitability, Vernon Tyson, the historian's father, is exiled from Oxford because he tried to teach it tolerance.
All in all, a reminder that changing history requires a synthesis of the fiery revolutionary's fury and the non-violent movement's stoical patience. Yes, this backward look at Oxford teaches us the wisdom of perseverance, a lesson already forgotten by millions of Americans who made 2008 a landmark in black history. We can be grateful to the Levine for bringing this valuable lesson to us again.