Mike Wiley to join Kenan Institute for Ethics as Artist in Residence; Will Co-Direct America’s Hallowed Ground

North Carolina-based playwright and actor Mike Wiley will join the Kenan Institute for Ethics as Artist in Residence for a three-year appointment effective March 1, 2022.

Mike Wiley
Photo credit: Chris Charles.

A graduate of the University of North Carolina’s M.F.A. program in acting and 2017 winner of its Distinguished Alumni Award, Mike Wiley writes, directs, and performs dramas, many of them based on key events and figures in African American history. He embodies dozens of characters in his one-man shows, tours throughout North Carolina and the United States, and leads communities and schools in post-performance discussions about the issues raised in the plays. His catalog as playwright includes a growing number of ensemble cast works as well. He has taught at Duke and UNC as the Lehman Brady Joint Visiting Professor of Documentary Studies and American Studies in 2010 and 2014.

At the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Wiley will co-direct “America’s Hallowed Ground” with Charlie Thompson, Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and Documentary Studies and Kenan Senior Fellow. Beginning as a Bass Connections project, and conceived in the spirit of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, this project seeks to honor sites of past struggles, conflicts, and sacrifices that are significant to American history, particularly its history of racial inequality. Many of these sites and their historical connection are not widely known today.

Combining research and engagement with local communities, America’s Hallowed Ground will tell the stories of these sites through the arts, making these histories accessible to a broader public and elevating them to the local, regional, and national recognition they warrant. Wiley and Thompson have already begun working on the first site: Wilmington, N.C., where white supremacists staged a violent coup in 1898 to suppress the growing political power of African Americans.

Wiley is also bringing his practice of engaging communities through the arts to Duke classrooms. With Charlie Thompson, he is currently co-teaching a Cultural Anthropology course that approaches Wilmington 1898 through ethnography and showcases how artistic expression can make research both accessible and memorable to broader populations. Students will travel to Wilmington in April, visiting sites with Thompson and Wiley, doing anthropological fieldwork, and eventually completing public history-oriented projects of their own.

“It’s really Mike’s and my expertise meshing together, in this course,” said Thompson. “We are learning how these different fields can inform one another, and become richer through cross fertilization, and I think the students really get that. They want their work to be relevant, and to reach beyond Duke.”

America’s Hallowed Ground will continue its work in Wilmington this year. The co-directors and their collaborators, many professional artists, will work with community stakeholders to produce art on local sites through podcasts, visual art, choreography, and other modes of digital storytelling. Eventually, they hope to expand the project to other sites, both in North Carolina and nationally.

Wiley’s experience as an artist and educator is integral to the process.

“Ethics happens by participation,” said David Toole, Interim Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics. “Mike’s a great example of that. His unique abilities as an artist and performer show us the connections between what we do in the classroom and what it means for us to live well in the world.”

“Few creative talents have Mike Wiley’s range of artistic expression,” noted Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Edward Balleisen, “nor his extraordinary knack for using drama to compel engagement with the lived realities of American history. At once playwright, actor, director, and documentarian, Wiley will challenge Duke students and Durham residents to probe the moral implications of America’s professed ideals, and American society’s imperfect embrace of those aspirations.”

To mark Wiley’s appointment, the Kenan Institute for Ethics is sponsoring a performance of “The Fire of Freedom” this spring. Based on a book by historian David Cecelski and adapted by playwright Howard Craft, this one-man show by Wiley focuses on Wilmington native Abraham Galloway, who escaped from slavery and organized hundreds of Black soldiers to fight against the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The performance will take place at the Carolina Theatre in downtown Durham at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 11. Admission is free, but please register for tickets here. After the play, there will be a talkback with Wiley, Cecelski, and Craft.