By Hugh Fisher
Most people wouldn’t expect a play about slavery to be much on laughter.
But Mike Wiley’s one-man show about the life and escape of runaway slave Henry “Box” Brown relies on audience participation and humor to help teach kids about this historic figure.
“It’s a bit of sugar with their medicine,” Wiley said.
“If they’re going to understand this history, no matter their race, they must wade into the water ó understand how we got to where we are today, in present-day America,” said Wiley.
He performed the life of Henry “Box” Brown on Monday at the Kannapolis Performing Arts Center at A.L. Brown High School, doing a show each for Kannapolis Middle School and A.L. Brown High School students.
He’s spending the remainder of the week performing at other schools in Cabarrus County.
Wiley’s portrayal of Henry “Box” Brown is minimalistic: he uses few props and very basic costumes.
But during the hour he was on stage, he had his audience by turns laughing uproariously as he used spectators to help him tell the story of Brown, who got his nickname because of his unusual method of escaping from slavery.
With the help of white sympathizers, Brown had himself placed in a wooden crate and was shipped 27 hours by rail to freedom in Pennsylvania.
To help tell the story, Wiley pulled teachers and students from the crowd onto the stage and had them assume comic poses.
He called Kannapolis Middle School social studies teacher Steve Fulton up onto the stage and ó with the help of a hat and a cloth to simulate long, red hair ó turned him into a bumbling white overseer.
Other students helped mime moments from Brown’s escape and daily life on a plantation, presented with humorous twists.
But what Wiley’s comedy didn’t do was overshadow the human misery of slavery. During the scene in which Wiley portrays the breaking apart of a slave family at the whim of a dying white master, silence filled the auditorium.
Students who’d been laughing heartily moments before were intent and focused.
That’s the scene that stood out for eighth-grader Kaylee Sambrowski, who was also one of the students Wiley tapped to help during a scene when “Box” Brown is preparing his escape.
“The show told me what they went through, how they felt,” Sambrowski said.
That’s just what Wiley intended.
“I hope (the students) remember that the most horrible part of a life of slavery was the separation of families,” Wiley said after the performance,” he said.
“At any moment of your life, you could be ripped away from your loved ones,” Wiley added.
Eighth-grade Principal Kelly Burgess said that Wiley’s play reinforces what kids are learning in school.
“This relates to what they’re learning in their social studies curriculum,” Burgess said. “They have had discussions about slavery in class beforehand, and they’ll continue to discuss it.”
The chance to see a live production is also very special for some Kannapolis Middle School students, she said.
“Many of our kids don’t get to see performances or productions like this, so it’s a great experience to be able to offer,” Burgess said.
Wiley, a graduate of Catawba College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tours the country presenting shows on black historical figures, including Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Tuskegee Airmen.
He said that, other than understanding the human cost of slavery, he hopes his audiences leave with a sense of how humor can enrich even the most troubled moments of life.
“I want them to understand that, without laughter, we could not take the hard times,” Wiley said.
Contact Hugh Fisher at 704-933-3450 or hfisher@ kannapoliscitizen.com.