Say this much about Mike Wiley: He does not shy away from a challenge.
The 45-year-old Wiley writes and produces plays that bring America's troubled racial history to life, primarily one-man shows where he plays all the roles himself — "DAR HE: The Lynching of Emmett Till" and the Jackie Robinson play, "A Game Apart," among them.
This spring, however, finds Wiley expanding from one-man plays to ensemble works. Not only is he writing two such plays, but one of them is brand new.
"Leaving Eden" is the new play, showing through April 22 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill. It also is the Chapel Hill theater company's first-ever commission.
"Blood Done Sign My Name" will open May 11 at Raleigh Little Theatre, a full-cast adaptation of Wiley's one-man play about a racially tinged 1970 murder in the North Carolina town of Oxford.
Wiley won't be performing onstage in either play, and at least they're happening on his home turf. Still, crafting multiple works like this concurrently — while still doing his own solo shows, too — is a lot to take on.
"It would be a challenge for a more mortal person," said Charles Phaneuf, executive director at Raleigh Little Theatre. "But Mike is extraordinary. We're extremely lucky to have him around here. He's a national-caliber artist, and he's as important a thinker as he is an artist. He has a real vision for what theater can do, the conversations it can start, the window into history it provides."
Both plays should start a lot of conversations about the past and present. "Blood Done Sign My Name" is about Henry "Dickie" Marrow, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, who is black. He was beaten and shot to death in front of multiple witnesses in Oxford in 1970. Two white suspects were charged, but an all-white jury acquitted both — triggering riots that left much of the town in ruins.
Writer and historian Timothy B. Tyson grew up in Oxford and witnessed all of this as a child, later publishing the book "Blood Done Sign My Name" in 2004. The "Blood" story was also the subject of a 2010 movie starring Nate Parker (later the controversial auteur of the 2016 remake of "Birth of a Nation") and Ricky Schroder.
"Leaving Eden," meanwhile, began as a song that Greensboro singer-songwriter Laurelyn Dossett wrote in 2004 about families leaving the town of Eden after its textile mills closed down. Triangle-based Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded the song in 2012 as the title track of a Grammy-nominated album of the same name.
But Wiley has expanded the song's storyline to also include North Carolina's Latinx immigration of recent decades (Latinx is the preferred gender-neutral term for Latino or Latina). A recent afternoon found him in a UNC classroom as a guest lecturer, energetically holding forth about "Leaving Eden" to a literature class.
"Leaving Eden" examines recurring cycles of racial history in America and North Carolina. It's a landscape Wiley knows well, having lived and worked in North Carolina since coming from his native Virginia to attend Catawba College in Salisbury in the early 1990s.
"'Leaving Eden' is not about the death of textiles or job losses," Wiley told the class. "It's about the changing face of America and the definition of home. Everyone, in some sense, is trying to find or get back to their own Eden. So I started looking for correlations between the great Latinx migration and the African-American migration of the late '20s and early '30s — when communities across the South and Midwest and even up North attempted to banish their African-American population.
"That's how 'Leaving Eden' came about," he said. "By looking at this cyclical nature and asking: 'Are we going to do this again, or learn our lesson?'"
'An enormous education'
"Leaving Eden" is a step beyond the comfort zone for many of its participants, especially Vivienne Benesch, PlayMakers' artistic director who moved from western New York to Chapel Hill in 2016 to succeed then-director Joseph Haj. To prepare her for directing the play, Wiley and Dossett took Benesch to some North Carolina small towns to get a feel for the region.
"It has been the beginning of an enormous education," Benesch said. "I have come out of it with more questions than answers about the complicated past that this state is still trying to reckon with. It's a story specific to North Carolina, but it also resonates with friends and families across the country."
As timely as "Leaving Eden" is, it's no surprise that it wound up colliding with modern headlines. Early on, Wiley wrote a scene involving a group of angry white people on a torchlit protest march. A few weeks later, the "Unite the Right" white-nationalist rally happened in Charlottesville, Va.
Events recur throughout "Leaving Eden," between the Jim Crow era with African-Americans and then again with Latinx immigrants eight decades later.
"This guy in 1933 and this other guy in 2016, they're making the same mistakes," Wiley said. "Will they try not to? I write documentary dramas because I like looking at history to fill in the blanks — the gray areas, the conversations we know happened but not exactly what was said. That excites me."
Hope for change
Along with expanding the storyline of "Leaving Eden," Wiley also altered the setting. This dramatized version takes place in a fictional town called Marah, where Eden is the name of a former plantation, then a textile mill and finally a pork processing plant.
"It's an epic with several storylines," Benesch said. "Several end happily, others do not. It's definitely not a wrapped-up happy ending, but there's an opening for choice with a line that's echoed: 'Hope for change, and change for hope.' You can't just hope for change, you have to change to bring back hope."
While Marah is a fictional place, it doesn't seem too far removed from the Oxford of "Blood Done Sign My Name." In Wiley's telling, both have a lot of the same challenges, fears and phobias going back centuries. The psychological landscape of Wiley's plays has become more complicated in the era of President Donald Trump, he said.
"I never go into something aiming to be controversial," Wiley said. "If it happens, that's a reflection of people who see themselves, or don't want to. I'd say there's definitely a tension in the air now that didn't used to be there. Before 2016, nobody ever asked my political affiliation or who I voted for.
"But it's a teachable moment about why I do these shows, and why they're important," he added. "I would not be doing these plays if I believed anything other than that all people are created equal."
▪ "Leaving Eden" runs through April 22 at the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 250 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill. Most tickets $15 to $57. 919-962-7529 or PlaymakersRep.org
▪ "Blood Done Sign My Name" plays May 11-27 at Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh. Most tickets are $19.58-$23.31. 919-821-3111 or RaleighLittleTheatre.org