Entertainment

Review: 'Blood Done Sign My Name,' a play about a '70s murder, reflects today's racial divide

From left, Alicia Whitfiled as Fannie Chavis, Jasmine Marshall as Caroline Thorpe, Benaiah Barnes as Ben Chavis, Germona Sharp as Eddie McCoy, Nickea Latrice as Rosanna Allen and Justin Toyer as Younger Tim in in Raleigh Little Theatre's "Blood Done Sign My Name."
From left, Alicia Whitfiled as Fannie Chavis, Jasmine Marshall as Caroline Thorpe, Benaiah Barnes as Ben Chavis, Germona Sharp as Eddie McCoy, Nickea Latrice as Rosanna Allen and Justin Toyer as Younger Tim in in Raleigh Little Theatre's "Blood Done Sign My Name." Dennis Berfield

In 1970, white men murdered a black man in Oxford, N.C., and were acquitted by an all-white jury, prompting protests and violence by the local black community. Those events were largely forgotten until Timothy Tyson’s 2004 book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” which related the effects the events had on him as the 10-year-old son of a local Methodist minister.

Actor/playwright Mike Wiley has garnered acclaim for his one-man show about the struggle for civil rights detailed in the book. At the request of Raleigh Little Theatre, Wiley expanded that show into a large-cast version with over 40 named characters, played in this world premiere production by 18 actors.

Wiley’s dramatic telling of 23-year-old Henry “Dickie” Marrow’s beating and murder does not sugarcoat the raw prejudices and ugly confrontations surrounding the horrifying incident.

Audiences must be prepared to hear heavy use of racial epithets and profanity, along with experiencing the gut-wrenching depiction of the murder.

Under Joseph Megel’s direction, the cast uses every inch of the playing space in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. Sonya Drum’s multilevel set easily transforms into churches, town squares and Main Street shops with the rearrangement of a few benches and props.

Cailen Waddell’s lighting deftly defines various locations, and Jenny Mitchell’s costumes establish period and character.

Kevin Leonard’s Vernon, Timothy’s father, sympathetically conveys the man’s crisis of faith concerning the church’s lack of involvement. Sixth-grader Benjamin Cashwell displays impressive confidence portraying young Timothy’s questioning of the deep-rooted prejudices around him.

Randy Jordan, as Robert Teel, the main instigator of the murder, holds back none of the character’s astonishing hatred and viciousness.

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From left, Justin Toyer as Younger Tim, Juanda Holley as Eveline Downey, Mark Phialas as Older Tim, Randy Jordan as Robert Teel, Juan Isler as Boo Chavis, Jajuan Cofield as Dickie Marrow, Kevin Leonard as Vernon Tyson, Benjamin Cashwell as Boyhood Tim and Matthew Bain as Vern Tyson in Raleigh Little Theatre's "Blood Done Sign My Name." Dennis Berfield

JuJuan Cofield makes a likable Dickie and, later, a charismatic Golden Frinks, the civil right activist who makes a stirring call to action at Dickie’s funeral.

Other memorable portrayals include Nickea Latrice as Rosanna, the Tyson’s protective housekeeper; Benaiah Barnes as seasoned organizer Ben Chavis; Juanda LaJoyce Holley as a church matriarch leading hymns and a gun-toting farmer; and, in an intriguing casting decision, Germona Sharp puts her own spin on outspoken Oxford activist, Eddie McCoy. The other actors make their marks in a fine ensemble effort.

Megel, the director, sometimes has too much competing activity for clarity of key dialogue, especially with the audience on three sides. Wiley favors short scenes that flip back and forth in time, often with actors playing multiple roles that are not always easily distinguished.

But nothing impedes the play’s impact concerning the situation five decades ago, one that sadly seems to be resurfacing in today’s political climate. The production should be seen for the lessons and warnings it offers.

Details

What: “Blood Done Sign My Name”

Where: Raleigh Little Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh

When: 8 p.m. May 17-19, 24-26, 31, June 1-2; 3 p.m. May 20, 27, June 3

Tickets: $21-$24

Info: 919-821-3111 or raleighlittletheatre.org

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