WILMINGTON — North Carolina actor Mike Wiley has performed as former slave and Union Army spy Abraham Galloway about 30 times since his one-man show “The Fire of Freedom” debuted in 2018. Yet, it will be his first time bringing to life the play on Galloway’s old stomping grounds in Wilmington.
“This is absolutely fabulous to have the opportunity to walk in the places that Galloway walked, to speak in the places that Gallaway spoke,” Wiley said.
Galloway was integral to the Union Army’s success in North Carolina during the Civil War. According to David Cecelski’s book, “The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War,” he spoke to a crowd of Black men two years after the war, on July 20, 1867, at historic Thalian Hall, where Wiley is performing the play. Galloway called on Black men to take over the Republican Party, with the goal to fully push for equal rights. His determination and drive would steer him into serving as a state senator during the Reconstruction era.
Yet, “The Fire of Freedom” takes place in 1863, six years after Galloway escaped slavery in Wilmington by hiding in cargo on a turpentine schooner headed to Philadelphia. Eventually, he reached the border of Canada, with the help of the Underground Railroad, for whom he ended up working and eventually rescuing his own mother from slavery out of Smithville (now known as Southport). Galloway was part of the abolitionist movement before becoming a Union spy and helping recruit escaped slaves as Union soldiers.
“Galloway was beholden to no one,” Wiley said. “And that’s part of his charm, part of how incredible he was.”
Wiley compares him to Malcolm X: compelling, self-confident, filled with swagger.
“He has a lyricism about him — a lyrical way of speaking and forming sentences and thoughts and arguments, that, by the end of this particular play, my hope is the audience itself is ready to stand and be a part of the army,” Wiley said. “I want the audience to feel like they have a stake in the outcome of it.”
Wiley first learned about the historical figure a decade ago while working on another performance based on a book, “Blood Done Sign My Name,” by his friend Timothy Tyson (who also wrote “The Blood of Emmett Till,” which Wiley based another of his shows on). Their mutual friend, author Cecelski, was working on the Abraham Galloway book at the time.
“Tim said, ‘You’ve absolutely got to portray him in a play once the book is written,’” Wiley recalled. “I remember my plate was full, but I also had a good friend, a playwright, Howard Craft, and we were looking to collaborate on something together. Then Howard said to me, out of the blue, ‘Hey, have you ever heard of this fella named Abraham Galloway?’”
Wiley introduced Craft to Cecelski, and Craft ended up adapting the book as a play, with Wiley in mind to perform it. “The Fire of Freedom” made its premiere at UNC, from where Wiley graduated with an MFA in 2005.
“The play asks — without asking, so to speak — for the audience to be an escaped, Black enslaved man, in the attic of Mary Ann Starkey’s home. She was a free, Black school teacher in New Bern, who would teach escaped slaves reading, writing, and so forth,” Wiley explained. “She was also a Union spy and a historic figure in her own right.”
At Starkey’s home, a Massachusetts abolitionist named Edward W. Kinsley took a vested interest in recruiting slaves into the Union Army. Kinsley helped raise the first African-American regiment of the Civil War — the 54th Massachusetts Regiment — and, with the help of Galloway, was able to raise the 1st North Carolina Colored Regiment, also known as the 35th Colored Regiment of U.S. troops. The regiment was integral to the capture of Wilmington in February 1865.
Before Galloway agreed to help, he made Kinsley promise — by gunpoint, nonetheless — that enlisted slaves would be treated fairly, which included equal pay as northern soldiers, and the slaves’ refugee families would be looked after. It also included a guarantee from the U.S. government that they would be afforded the same rights as military prisoners of war, if in fact they were captured.
Wiley said the power of Galloway comes through in his activism and oratory prowess. The play features him describing personal experiences to the slaves, to allow them to make an educated decision about whether they would join forces with the Union Army or remain independent in their fight for freedom.
“He wanted to give them all the facts,” Wiley said, “so they could make a clear and educated decision without feeling they are being forced into it. Galloway understands there are devils on both sides — so do you go with the devil you know or the devil you don’t know?”
“The Fire of Freedom” is quite different from the seven shows Wiley has performed nationally; he’s normally portraying upward of 30 characters a play. He has taken on the persona of Freedom Rider John Lewis and racists like Birmingham public safety commissioner Bull Connor in “Breach of Peace,” based on civil rights marches in 1961. Wiley has become Jackie Robinson and his baseball colleagues in “A Game Apart.” He also has inhabited the head space of a young man murdered for whistling at a white woman, as well as the young man’s mother and others bearing witness in “Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till.”
Wiley moves between characters swiftly, often inflecting various dialects and voices, displaying different postures. He never has costume changes, few props, and depends on his portrayal to keep the narrative streamlined.
Galloway’s story has resonated with Wiley on a deeper level because “The Fire of Freedom” allowed him to dig into a solo character. The research of Abraham Galloway, and more notably the players moving around him, illuminated the scope of networks slaves had throughout the South. Though Wiley always knew word-of-mouth news traveled — miles upon miles apart, North to South — he said to conceptualize the risks these people took was overwhelming. He also felt honored to see “firsthand” through his character how they mobilized to overcome the staunchest of circumstances to reach freedom.
“If you dig through the research, you realize at some point, whether it was going to take the Civil War, or through their own insurrections, Black people were going to be free. They were going to free themselves,” Wiley said.
That’s the essence of “The Fire of Freedom.”
Founder of Mike Wiley Productions, the actor performs and produces shows that are educational in nature, as to bring to life African American history.
“When I started doing this 20 years ago, I wanted to write pieces that a professional theatre can show, but also bring kids in to watch — or go into the community to perform for them,” he said.
After his show at Thalian, Wiley will have a virtual version ready to provide to area schools for teachers and history classes that wish to explore the story of Galloway and his impact on the Union Army in the South.
“Doing this kind of work makes history walk and talk — it pulls students out of the textbook,” Wiley said. “Twenty years ago, I was seeing very few opportunities for students to see this history and performance, even on television or in film.”
A 2014 Lehman Brady Visiting Joint Chair Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC, Wiley has since appeared on Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and National Geographic.
Still portraying a freedom fighter live, and from a centuries-old past, is not without reverence and honor for the actor. He said the real grit of the story is palpable from the emotions that resonate in its retelling in 2021. Wiley remains particularly affected by some of the brutal descriptions in “The Fire of Freedom” that reveal how slaves were treated. He refers to a story of a teenage stable boy, who in the show demands to be of help to the Union by spying on his own master. The boy is caught and consequently beaten to death.
“I think about my own 13-year-old,” Wiley said. “It’s in those moments I have to make those connections because those are the ways we find the most truth: making personal connections. And it’s just deeply disturbing and internally tough to think about my own children being brutalized in that way.”
The counterbalance to “The Fire of Freedom” comes in its resilience and hope. Wiley said he manages to bring some light and humor in the nooks and crannies of the show, even in the Galloway character.
The play concludes before Galloway takes office as the first Black man elected to the N.C. legislature, but Wiley said he and Craft already are discussing a followup. This first chapter centers on the bravery of the people who fought, and though its central figure is Galloway, really, it’s about every slave who grabbed a rifle, put on a uniform, and marched to battle in the hopes of freeing themselves and future generations of people.
“I may be speaking of sacrifice or an incident or an individual from the 1860s in this play, but the story for me is still present day,” Wiley said. “The emotion is present day — the inspirations, the anger or sadness, remorse or regret. It really comes from a deeper place of honesty and understanding of what other Black men are going through in America, still.”
A historical marker is dedicated to Abraham Galloway at the corner of 3rd and Bladen streets in downtown Wilmington, one block from where he lived when he died in 1870 at age 33.
Mike Wiley performs “The Fire of Freedom: The Story of Abraham Galloway” on Thursday at Thalian Hall, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55.
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