1961: The Freedom Riders have gathered from across America.  They are about to travel to the segregated and violent southern states to fight racial prejudice. What might they bring with them on such a trip?  A change of clothes? A few belongings for the road? In the first few days of rehearsal for Mike Wiley’s Parchman Hour, the story of the Riders and their struggle, the prop shop got a note asking for “about 12 suitcases”. We did a little research on clasp and lock types from the 1940’s through the early 60’s. Luckily PlayMakers’ has an extensive stock of mid-century suitcases, so we rolled our stairs over to the loft and pulled down about 15 of the most interesting ones we could find. 

Suitcases with their original handles.

We cleaned them up and put them in rehearsal.  During rehearsal, we realized that the wiggle in the suitcase handles was hazardous. The actors had to perform a choreographed routine with the suitcases and the unwieldy pieces of luggage were suddenly death bludgeons. So we took back the ones we liked. Over the next few days our wonderful prop Work Study students removed the original handles with saws and cutters and other destructive tools.

Melinda Bendixen removing and original handle.
We chose plain metal drawer pulls as replacement handles because of their strength and durability. However they are ugly.

Yuman Wang attaching a new handle.

At this point we let the work studies loose on them with the instructions to “Make them work, make them look like they go with the suitcase.”  Taking the original handles as starting points, they painted some, covered a couple in colored gaffer’s tape or fabric, and even wrapped one in ribbon.


Suitcases with new and hold handles
We bolted the new handles on, reinforcing the older, flimsier suitcases, and voila! Dance worthy suitcase handles. No wiggling or whacking our actors. They can now use suitcases in a way they were never intended to be used! Ah, the magic of theater.

End of story! Of course not! So much of the action takes place front and center in this show (without the usual scene changes or off stage costume changes) word came down from rehearsal that a change of costume should be pre-dressed in the suitcases. We went back and “prettied up” the insides of the suitcases. We cleaned them out, let them air out, deodorized a couple, fixed some lining, and once again- Voila! Completed prop. Now we just check them every few days to make sure they’re structurally sound and that everything is holding up.


The Parchman Hour runs through Sunday, November 13
.