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Mike Wiley's One-Man Show Explores the Lynching of Emmett Till
Mike Wiley's One-Man Show Explores the Lynching of Emmett Till

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, playwright and actor Mike Wiley performed his one-man play "Dar He" for students in the Upper School. "Dar He" explores the infamous August 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, and its aftermath, using the words, actions and interactions of numerous characters, all played by Wiley.

The title is taken from the words of Till's uncle, a minister, in identifying in court the man who forcibly took the African-American 14-year-old from his relatives' home in the dead of night. The brutality of Till's murder and the speedy acquittal of the two white suspects — who later confessed to a reporter from Look Magazine — are widely seen today as galvanizing the modern Civil Rights Movement.

In preparation for the performance, which capped Black History Month, Upper School students participated in an MLK Day of Service activity designed to gauge and build upon their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement. In advisory groups, students watched an excerpt on Emmett Till from the documentary "Eyes on the Prize" and then spent time in discussion and reflection.

English teacher Colby Bogie said the performance made a powerful impact on the audience.

"All of my students were somewhat aware of the issue of lynching in the early 20th-century South, but I don't think they quite understood how widespread and frequent such killings were and how late into the 20th century they continued," he said. "'Dar He' opened up a discussion on the presence of intolerance throughout history, manifesting against different groups in different places over time but sadly still with us. It was a sobering conversation but a productive and important one."

Wiley also led a master class with Ravenscroft drama students. One of those students, Robin Playe '18, said he was struck by the nuanced portrayals of the main characters, including the men who killed Till.

"What made me like Mr. Wiley's retelling of the story most was the way he tried to convey his search for the truth, instead of simply trying to force his truth on the audience," said Robin Playe '18. "I asked why he portrayed the killers in a way where we could almost empathize with them, to the point where understanding them allowed us to hate their actions even more. His answer was that the best villains in any mediums are a balance of good and evil and that you could not make a good character if they were only 'good' or only 'bad.' His determination in attempting to retell the story as honestly as possible is what I think made me and many others like the play even more."

Wiley's visit to campus was part of a new speaker series funded by a grant to the Upper School History and Social Studies Department by the John William Pope Foundation. The grant also funds the upcoming March 13 visit from Stuart Jones, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Iraq, to work with students in APⓇ U.S. Government and Politics during an extended seminar.

"Our hope [with the speaker series] was to be able to introduce students to leaders in the community who might share their wisdom and encourage civic engagement," said department chair Mark Laskowski, who has wanted to bring Wiley to campus since seeing him perform in 2006. "Mike Wiley's performance fit perfectly with those goals."

Wiley's riveting one-man shows have introduced students and communities to the stories of Emmett Till, Henry "Box" Brown, the Freedom Riders and more. A film adaptation of this show, "Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till," was released to wide acclaim in 2012.

In a new book, "The Blood of Emmett Till," historian Timothy Tyson relates a 2007 conversation with Carolyn Bryant Donham, Till's accuser, in which she recanted her version of events — that Till had accosted her in her family's store — and said Till did not deserve the treatment he received at the hands of her husband and his brother.

Below, video from Mike Wiley's Q&A with Upper School students and faculty following his performance: top, why he chooses to perform one-man plays; bottom, why he wrote this play about Emmett Till.