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'Dar He!' The artistic advocacy of North Carolina's Mike Wiley

 Mike Wiley performing one of more than 30 characters in his one-man play "Dar He - The Story of Emmett Till."
Aravind Ragupathi
Mike Wiley performing one of more than 30 characters in his one-man play "Dar He - The Story of Emmett Till."

With a war in Ukraine, rising interest rates and the Supreme Court’s historic confirmation hearing of Katanji Brown Jackson, it’s easy for some news to just slip right past you.

But not this.

After more than 200 attempts, Congress passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act earlier this month. In the U.S. Senate, the vote was unanimous.

It has taken a long time for the government to make lynching a federal hate crime. Emmett Till was a Black teenager who was beaten and murdered in Mississippi back in 1955. The outrage of Till’s lynching by white men is said to have ignited the civil rights movement.

“Sacrificing my son and the privacy of my grief, I became the living, walking, wailing wall for those who had been touched by Bo’s story,” Mike Wiley performs in a distinct, lady-like voice. “In re-telling it, he shall live on.”

Wiley is a North Carolina-based playwright, actor and director. In his one-man play “Dar He – the Story of Emmett Till,” Wiley plays with passion Till’s mother, Mamie Till, and more than 30 other characters.

Audiences from South Carolina to South Africa say they were left spellbound as Wiley glides from character to character, between age, race and gender, during a time in Mississippi when the races did not mix. For more than 15 years, Wiley has single-handedly kept Emmett Till’s name in the news, on-stage and in classrooms. “Dar He” was also made into a film, starring Wiley.

“Nearly six months after the kidnapping, murder and subsequent trial revolving around the Negro youth Emmett Till and his accused killers J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant Jr., I sat down with the two men who had been hoisted on the shoulders of white supremacy and later shunned by those same friends and neighbors,” Wiley says with the conviction of a white journalist for Look Magazine.

“Dar He” which also means, “There he is,” is what Till’s great-uncle said in court, pointing out the men who dragged Till from his bed the night the teen was murdered.

Wiley has performed “Dar He” hundreds of times. It is in his bones. So, when the Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed and went to President Joe Biden’s desk for signature, I wanted his reaction — a Black man who invested a good part of his career telling Till’s story.

“I needed folks to understand it. To be moved by it, to be moved to do something about it,” Wiley said. “And now stepping back to look at how so much of the country now remembers and knows the name Emmett Till; it’s a brand new day.”

Wiley has a repertoire of one-man-plays he has written and performed, examining America’s racial history — from Emmett Till, to baseball great Jackie Robinson, to Henry “Box” Brown.

Earlier this month, Wiley performed “One Noble Journey” for school kids in Fuquay-Varina and at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center. The play tells the true story of Henry “Box” Brown, a slave, who literally shipped himself from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — to freedom.

When the audience took their seats at the arts center, they quietly chatted and ate popcorn waiting for the performance to begin. Like me, they often glanced at the stage where a sealed crate sat.

And then all of a sudden, we all gasped. Wiley begin the play by slowly pushing up the top of the box and climbing out — to freedom.

Wiley says he loves seeing the expression on audience faces. Wiley brings several audience members on stage as he tells the story of Brown. He often chooses white people to play Black slaves and Black people to play white slave owners.

Stanley Napue of Raleigh, and his teenage son Ian Napue, were two people made into instant actors during the show. This was their first time attending a Wiley performance. Stanley says he enjoyed the Q&A period after the show the most.

“Obviously he’s a great actor,” Stanley said. “It’s a great educational piece. A practical educational piece to make us look inward.”

The Q&A is Wiley’s favorite part of his performances as well. He says audience goers have cheered and cried over history they thought they knew. All of Wiley’s plays have been recorded and are being distributed to school districts who request them, for teaching purposes.

Wiley was recently named Artist in Residence at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. On April 11, Wiley will perform “The Fire of Freedom” at the Carolina Theatre in Durham, North Carolina — his biggest stage yet , since the start of the pandemic.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.