Sending yourself through the mail today might be a prank on a reality-TV show, but in 1848, it was brave beyond comprehension. An enslaved Virginia man named Henry “Box” Brown arrived at freedom this way when he had himself mailed in a specially designed wooden crate to abolitionists in Philadelphia.
Mike Wiley will bring the story to life this month at the Tryon Fine Arts Center with his one-man play One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom. The actor/playwright has been highlighted extensively in regional and national media and has strong links to North Carolina; he received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was the 2010 and 2014 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies, at Duke University and at UNC.
In all, the actor tours nine plays, mostly solo acts with some musical accompaniment. These include Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till and Breach of Peace, about the “Freedom Riders” who rode buses into the segregated South during the Civil Rights era. Wiley revealed to Bold Life the increasing necessity of documentary theater.
How did you first become aware of Henry Brown’s story?
I was living in Richmond, Virginia, and touring children’s theater in my mid-twenties. There is a small statue of Henry Brown in the lower “Bottoms” section of the city. I was fascinated by his life story. Once I moved to New York in 1999, I realized I needed to adapt his story into my first solo production.
You do nine plays. How long have you been performing this piece?
The production premiered in 2000 at the Man Bites Dog Theater in Durham, and I’ve been touring it ever since. It’s changed in numerous ways over the years, but at the heart I still strive to give the audience an opportunity to walk in Brown’s shoes.
What drew you so strongly to this particular story?
I grew up in Virginia just after school desegregation and was the only black student in my third-grade class. I learned at a very young age that you had to be ready to fight for what you believed in. Henry Brown’s story to me was a powerful example.
As the political climate changes, have you noticed a corresponding change in audiences and how they receive A Noble Journey?
I find some audiences are even less educated about American history than they were 15 years ago. Questions in my post-performance Q&A make that clear. Questions like: “What about the good masters?”
Mike Wiley will perform One Noble Journey: A Box Marked Freedom on the Veh Stage at Tryon Fine Arts Center (38 Melrose Ave.) on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 7pm. $20/adults, $10/students. For tickets and information, visit tryonarts.org or call 828-859-8322. Learn more about Mike Wiley’s work at mikewileyproductions.com.