In 1968, African-American comedian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham capitalized on a rare opportunity to showcase his talents for a national audience as Judge Pigmeat in a recurring sketch on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Flamboyantly waving his hands, donned in oversized judicial regalia, and crowned with a powdered wig, Judge Pigmeat paraded onto the stage chanting “Heah come de Judge! Heah come de Judge!” The schtick was later popularized by other African-American actors like Sammy Davis Jr. and Flip Wilson, but it was first birthed in the early 60s by the comedic genius of Durham-born “Pigmeat” Markham.
Today the presence of “Pigmeat” quietly stretches to each corner of Durham, North Carolina; from the Markham Avenue street sign designating one of the city’s busiest cross-streets to the strength of Durham’s historic Hayti Community, the African-American district founded at the end of the Civil War, where Markham was born. As a newcomer to Durham’s theater scene, however, I wasn’t formally introduced to Markham until asked to portray Black Power activist, Stokley Carmichael, in a new play by an artist whose name also reaches throughout Durham: Mike Wiley.
In Wiley’s The Parchman Hour, chronicling the 1961 Freedom Rides, Carmichael spews Markham’s idiom at the warden of Mississippi’s Parchman State Penitentiary as a form of ironic protest against the unlawful jailing of the freedom riders. Yet, the legacy in which I now participate along with Markham and Wiley extend far beyond that catchphrase. As a Ph.D. student in Performance Studies, my academic and artistic works converge on the stage, where I explore how histories are told through theater. “Pigmeat” Markham and Mike Wiley are situated within the history of Black performance marked by an oscillation between struggle and jubilation. This is the history that Wiley’s plays have brought to Durham, North Carolina. “I start with the history,” he told me. “[With] the solo work that I do, the history is so in the foreground that people don’t have to sift through to see what the message is.”
Throughout his work, Wiley traces a message of unyielding resolve in the face of racial adversity. His first one-person show, One Noble Journey¸ narrates the story of Henry “Box” Brown, the African-American slave who escaped to freedom by mailing himself from Richmond to Philadelphia in a wooden box. Mirroring the tenacity of his character, Mike didn’t wait around for an opportunity to come to him; he sought it out. “I bought this used fax machine,” he explained “and I just started faxing schools and theaters information about the play.” I smiled, because I remembered bouncing around Southern California to perform my own first one-person show. As if reading my mind, Mike tells me through a hand full of chuckles, “Then, I had my old high school drama teacher build me a wooden box which stuck out of the trunk of my eight-hundred-dollar used Ford Tempo, and I would drive wherever someone asked me to do the show.” Since One Noble Journey’s premiere in the winter of 2000 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, Mike’s presence as the region’s foremost performance-historian “just started to grow,” as he put it. Over the span of Mike’s twelve-year career, his repertoire has grown to include over a half-dozen plays and one-person shows. A Game Apart documents the single-handed effort of Jackie Robinson to integrate major league athletics, Life is So Good introduces the audience to the 103-year-old grandson of a slave who learned to read at age ninety-eight, and his adaptation of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name recounts the 1970 murder of Henry “Dickie” Marrow in Oxford, NC. “These are moments in our history that organically excite me,” Mike explained. “They are active enough, exciting enough to dramatize. Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to dramatize them.”
Anyone who has witnessed a Mike Wiley production can testify to his signature method of dramatization, a rapid-fire arsenal of changing characters. This second nature sprung to life at the lunch table as he recited an anecdote of his actor training experience, of course complete with multiple characters and sound effects. “In grad school I played a role where I got on an old 1920s style elevator, you know with the ‘click-click-click’ of the gate and the ‘bong’ of the buttons. I did all this while keeping the dialogue going. That’s what I could do.” Wiley more than proved this ability in Dar He, where he took on the personas of thirty-six different characters to stage one of the most intriguing spectacles of the 1950s, the Emmett Till murder trial. When asked how his work fits within the larger discourse of Black experiences, our conversation promptly moved from questions of “how” to questions of “why.” He reiterated that his performances reflect “those moments in history that possess an opportunity for personal connection and transformation. For some reason those moments jump out at you because they touch your life and make the history feel truer.”
It is difficult to ignore the truth in Wiley’s productions, as his articulation of the injustice that led to the death of Emmett Till now echoes in Florida, where George Zimmerman awaits trial for the death of Trayvon Martin. With the Martin incident as our catalyst, we began to discuss the importance of Black Theater, particularly in Southern regions like New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Durham. “I think that this area was in need, but didn’t know it,” Mike remarked. Articulating the slow, but steady growth of presence of Black Theater in Durham, Mike explains, “In 1999, Orla Swift of the News and Observer wrote an article called ‘February is Black and Blue.’ It featured an array of the area’s Black artists that were working and doing theater, but were being pigeon-holed because so much of it was being done in February. That was over ten years ago…and here we are still talking about so much of our work being done only in February.” Reaching further back into Black Theater’s historical catalog, Mike referenced the 1961 radio broadcast ''The Negro in American Culture'' in which James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya, and Alfred Kazin openly discussed the state of Black Arts in America. “I must have listened to it, half-dozen times,” he confessed, “and listened to the same strands, the same ties, the same problems that we are having in this day and age. When I say some things never change, some things never change. And it’s not a Triangle-wide thing, it’s a worldwide thing. It’s not the way it has become, but the way it has been.” But while Broadway revives A Streetcar Named Desire featuring an all-Black cast, places like Durham provide Black Theater and artists thriving here something more: a space to tell their own stories, the way they see it, whether those stories be decades old or carry wet ink. “There is an opportunity here,” Mike assured me, “in two senses, here in this point in time, but also here in this area, to start giving people what they need to start doing more productions that offer a different view of African-American life or culture. We have reached a point where the Black community wants something more than gospel exploitation plays. They want something different, but they just don’t know what it is. But when they see it, they know it.”
In Durham, that difference manifests in the highly-celebrated recent work of local Black playwrights like Mike, and others like Chaunesti Webb, whose play I Love My Hair combed through the politics of Black women’s hair; Howard Craft’s inventive trilogy Jade City Chronicles: The Super Spectacular Bad-Ass Herald M.F. Jones, in which Mike starred as the city’s Black caped crusader (and yours truly as his loud-mouthed sidekick); or my own one-person show Sketches of a Man, which rehearsed the poetics of invisibility by working from Ralph Ellison’s iconic novel Invisible Man. “It’s like a spark,” Mike said, describing what’s happening in Durham. “We have got the flint, we got the stone, we have the kindling, and all the tools we need to get the fire going. All of us; you with your theater work and me and Chaunesti and Howard and people that want a different kind of play, a different slice of life are all blowing on it, all wanting to stoke this fire.” It was a fire lit in Durham by “Pigmeat” Markham over a half-century ago, now reignited. I, along with so many other artists, hope to fuel those flames by building upon Durham’s strong legacy of Black performance. If this is done, in the words of Mike Wiley, what started as a spark “will become a bonfire. Huge.”