When she attends Friday’s opening night of “The Parchman Hour” at the Guthrie Theater, Claire O’Connor of Minneapolis is likely to feel a special connection to the characters onstage.
The docudrama, by Mike Wiley, tells a story she actually lived.
In June 1961, O’Connor, then a freshman at the University of Minnesota, journeyed South as one of the Freedom Riders who were challenging segregation on interstate buses.
The movement was met by violence, as white mobs burned a bus and assaulted passengers. Many of the activists, black and white, were thrown in jail, including O’Connor, whose bus was halted in Jackson, Miss.
“It was scary, but we had courage,” said O’Connor, 74. “We were young. We were right. And we were immortal. Plus, we had each other.”
What she and her cellmates did in jail — sing freedom songs, tell jokes and play games to keep their spirits up — is partly captured by “The Parchman Hour.” Told in the style of a variety show, the play is named for Parchman Farm State Penitentiary, a notorious Mississippi prison where O’Connor and other civil rights activists were imprisoned.
O’Connor, who went on to work with voter registration drives in the South and sex-trafficked teens in the North, is one of several Minnesotans who took part in that attention-grabbing moment in civil rights history.
It started in May 1961 when an integrated group of 13 young men and women boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., bound for New Orleans. Their aim was to ride through places like Mississippi and Alabama where segregation had lost the protection of federal law but was still enforced by local custom.
The people who ran Parchman had a reputation for brutality.
“They would kill prisoners, black prisoners, and say they were trying to escape,” said Peter Ackerberg of Minneapolis, a retired attorney and former newspaper reporter who was also a Freedom Rider. “I didn’t want to go there.”
Ackerberg, 77, was on a different bus than O’Connor. Then a student at Columbia University, he also was arrested but was quickly bailed out.
Freedom songs and stories
Playwright Wiley, who has staged docudramas about baseball hero Jackie Robinson (“A Game Apart”) and Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom (“One Noble Journey”), shaped “Parchman” after interviews with former Freedom Riders.
He first presented the stories and songs in a student production at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he teaches. That’s where Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Haj saw “Parchman.” He was so taken with the work that he invited Wiley to do its professional premiere in 2011 at PlayMakers Repertory Company, which Haj headed at the time.
“The mood and atmosphere of the country was very different in 2011 from what it is now,” said Haj. “We were looking back and we still had some of the hope that the Obama era had ushered in.”
Today, amid demonstrations and riots around the police killings of black men and women, the play lands differently, Haj continued.
“This is a play about ally-ship,” Haj said. “In an age of Black Lives Matter, many people who are not African-American wonder what role they can play in the search for fairness and justice. Well, this show is about another time when whites and other people of color joined blacks as allies in the cause of freedom.”
That point, of cross-racial coalition, cannot be made strongly enough, said U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis. He and his colleagues at the federal courthouse in downtown Minneapolis hosted a traveling exhibit about the Freedom Riders.
“When people come into the courthouse, they see the inscription ‘Equal justice under law,’ ” said Davis, who was a high schooler in Illinois when the rides began. “For young people, this sometimes seems like ancient history. But it’s instructive, and it showed what can be accomplished when people come together across cultural lines.”
O’Connor, Ackerberg and other Freedom Riders have been honored for their idealism. Some have been on “Oprah.” Many have told their stories in “Freedom Riders,” a 2007 book by Raymond Arsenault, and a subsequent PBS documentary.
But the play is not only about history, said “Parchman” director Patricia McGregor, who is making her debut at the theater.
“What they did is instructive for us today,” she said. “The Freedom Riders didn’t fully understand what it would mean for people a world away to pick up the newspaper and see them being attacked and mistreated, but they knew they had to act. Everyone has to do their part.”
McGregor hopes that people will be moved by the scenes and songs in “Parchman,” and she hopes the show inspires new generations to come to the theater and to stand for what is right.
Art, after all, was important for the riders’ hearts and soul.
“Music was a salve to heal wounds and a battering ram for justice,” McGregor said. “It’s the same for us today as we confront images of violence against black bodies. This show is an undeniable call to action.”