Read France-Luce Benson‘s bio here.
Original cast of the Fountain’s 2010 award-winning production reunites for online reading on 65th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder
In August, 1955, energetic 14-year-old Chicago resident Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till’s murder and open casket funeral, a wish from his mother to let the world see “what was done to him,” galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement. So much so that three months later, Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus – and said she was ‘thinking of Emmett Till.’
It was not until 2017 that Bryant recanted her story, admitting that the court testimony she gave more than six decades prior was false and stating “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.” And that was seven years after Ifa Bayeza‘s THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL had its multiple award-winning West Coast premiere at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. So riveting is the storyline, I’d like to think its impact influenced Bryant to take the action she did.
But not much has changed in the way of racism in our country right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement inspiring people in the middle of a global pandemic to take to the streets to protest the lack of equal justice for people of color. “As America is now being challenged to face its racist history, I can think of no project more worthy,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs, “to present this play in an online format for people around the world to experience. And in addition to being the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder, Aug. 28 also marks the 57th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963, and a 2020 March on Washington this year.”
Part history, part mystery and part ghost story, Bayeza’s lyrical integration of past, present, fact and legend turns Emmett’s story into a soaring work of music, poetic language and riveting theatricality, transformed into an online format that breaks the notion of what a virtual performance can be. With the actors seen as cut-outs inserted into backdrops to fit each scene, characters move about each other in cars, on a living room couch, or while riding on a Ferris Wheel as if they really are in the scene together at the same time.
The new virtual production offers a brilliantly remarkable piece of online editing and direction by the play’s original cast and director Shirley Jo Finney, who stepped in to direct THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL after director Ben Bradley was found murdered in his home just a month prior to the show’s original 2010 opening in February 2010. “Because Ben loved the play and the project so much, we were determined to go forward,” explains Sachs, both to honor his and Emmett Till’s memory. No doubt Ben would have been as awestruck as I was when viewing the original cast in the current virtual production.
Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, describes the production as “a fast, immensely theatrical, 90-minute version with a cast of five that celebrates a young man who lived, not an icon who died.” In fact, we do get introduced to Emmett as a young teen living in Chicago who describes what his life is like living in the streets of a vibrant city where he does not feel held back by the color of his skin or his burgeoning interest in girls. When he persuades his mother to allow him to visit relatives is the Deep South, it is very apparent this outspoken young man who overcomes his shuttering by whistling, will be in for trouble since he does not realize how the social mores of this so-different society will place roadblocks to his natural need to speak his mind without regard to the consequences of his actions.
Every aspect of Emmett Till’s personality is shared with stunning realism by Lorenz Arnell, from Till’s youthful exuberance to the sheer terror he faced at the end of his life. Each of the other four actors, Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, Bernard K. Addison, and Karen Malina White, fully inhabit each of the play’s other characters from Till’s mother and grandmother to other family relatives and Till’s youthful companions. By the end of the play, which is often brutal as well as entirely entertaining to watch, you will feel as if you have stepped inside the lives of real people living in extraordinary circumstances often out of their own control.
“Everybody thinks of Emmett Till’s story as a tragedy,” says Finney. “This play is a joyous look at a life lived. Emmett was a hero and a martyr, not a victim. He had overcome polio, replacing his limp with a swagger. A stutterer when he was young, he became a wordsmith. He had a zest for living and a sense of humor; he was fearless and he was defiant. Those white men had just set out to ‘teach him a lesson’ – they murdered him because he was a ‘smart mouth.’ It was the spirit of his being that sparked the civil rights movement, his defiance and his refusal to bow down and be broken. And it was his mother who laid that foundation in him and who refused to hide any more by keeping that casket open. Emmett was the voice of a new generation.”
Finney and original cast members of The Fountain Theatre’s 2010 West Coast premiere reunited to present a live-streamed reading of the play onFriday, Aug. 28, which will be available for viewing online through Dec. 31 at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020 with tickets at $20 per viewing location. And there is no better way to honor Till’s memory and the spirit of human rights than to tune in to THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL before the end of this most unusual and profound year.
Original staged production photos by Ed Krieger
Online production photos by Shari Barrett
Read the full article by Shari Barrett for Broadway World here.
EllaRose Chary and Brandon James Gwinn are an award-winning writing team specializing in stories that take a fresh look at the queer community with cutting-edge music. They’ve been commissioned and produced by The Civilians/Encores! Off-Center at City Center, The Tank, Prospect Theater, 54 Below, Theatre C, All For One Theatre, NY Theatre Barn. They’ve been in residence at Ars Nova, Rhinebeck Writers Retreat/Triple R Residency, The O’Neill Theatre Center, Catwalk Institute, and The Polyphone Festival at UArts. They’ve been awarded grants from NAMT and Anna Sosenko Trust. As Dramatists Guild Fellows, they’ve been featured many times by the Guild and The Dramatists Guild Foundation, including in The Dramatist Magazine. Ella’s work has also been recognized as a Kleban Award Finalist, NYFA Fellowship Finalist, Kernodle New Play Award Finalist, and with Weston and BOH Cameronian Arts Awards. Brandon has been a Richard Rodgers Award Finalist, celebrated piano bar entertainer, LiveNation touring artist, and is also known for his work as a music producer. He produced and performed on the albums TWO BIRDS & ONE STONE by Trixie Mattel (Winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars 3), which debuted at #1 on the iTunes Top Albums chart and Billboard Heatseekers.
After my first experience of Theater for One — back in pre-pandemic days, when it meant sharing a small booth with an actor who performed a short play for you — I imagined it as what speed dating would be if you fell in love with everyone you met. Sitting that close to an actor’s face, hearing a story I could not avoid being part of because no one else was there to hear it, I was instantly drawn into the uncanny, enraptured collaboration of theater, with its roots in campfire tales and community bonding and a parent’s hushed voice at bedtime.
So when I learned that Theater for One was returning for six Thursdays this summer, in socially distanced form online, I worried that its contract with the audience would be broken. I’d attended enough Zoom meetings to know that “eye contact” had become metaphorical, a digital illusion mediated in both directions by the computer’s camera. How often I’d tried to wink or wave at a colleague, only to realize I was signaling 40 people indiscriminately — and reaching none.
But Theater for One, the brainchild of the scenic designer Christine Jones, turns out to be more adaptable than I thought. In “Here We Are,” its first online project, it has found workarounds for some of Zoom’s most alienating aspects, in the process creating not just a substitute version of the earlier experience but, in some ways, a moving improvement on it.
Its theatrical core is unchanged. Just as in Times Square or Zuccotti Park or any other location where T41 (as it is abbreviated) used to perform in person, you begin by getting in line — only now the line is virtual. Prompts like “What space are you creating in your heart today?” open conversations among anonymous theatergoers in the queue, who type answers that show up and disappear like fireflies on the screen. (Those answers are far more revealing than they would be in real life.) After a while, when a slot opens, you are whisked into a private space, not knowing whom or what you will see there; the assignations are random.
I caught four of the eight “microplays,” averaging about seven minutes each, that T41 commissioned for “Here We Are.” (The other four include works by Lynn Nottage and Carmelita Tropicana.) In honor of the centennial of ratification of the 19th Amendment, and in support of Black Lives Matter, all were written, directed, designed and performed by people of color, most of them women. The monologues are variously witty, worshipful, angry and determined as they take on subjects as widespread as writer’s block, political action, foster care and suffrage itself.
If no single theme unites them, they do share, as the omnibus title suggests, an intense feeling of the immediate present. In Jaclyn Backhaus’s “Thank You Letter,” a South Asian woman played by Mahira Kakkar writes to Representative John Lewis shortly after his death in July, in gratitude for his lesser-known work on immigration. And in Regina Taylor’s “Vote! (the black album),” Taylor plays a Black woman planning to honor her forebears, who dressed in their Sunday best to cast their ballots, by putting on a mask to mail hers.
The pandemic is a given in all the plays but generally takes second place to other concerns. In Lydia R. Diamond’s “whiterly negotiations,” directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, a “crazy-ish Black woman writer” played by Nikkole Salter vents on Zoom about a white editor’s microaggressions. But neither her dudgeon nor the Zoom itself turn out to be what they first seem; in a code-switching coda, Diamond suggests just how confusing our world’s new terrain can be.
Part of the cleverness — and effectiveness — of “whiterly negotiations” comes from not knowing who you, the viewer, alone in a virtual space with Salter, are meant to be in the story. If you are white, as I am, you might wonder whether you are standing in for the white editor, which is uncomfortable but eye-opening. If you are Black you might think you are a friend listening for the umpteenth time to the character’s spiel. One thing you can’t ever feel, because Salter looks right at you, is that you are a disinterested bystander.
That dynamic more or less informs all four plays I saw. In “Vote!” I felt like both a generalized ear and, because Taylor is such a compelling actor, the specific recipient of her intended message. (She is beautifully directed by Taylor Reynolds.) In “Thank You Letter,” Kakkar’s character immediately enlists you in her story by thanking you for listening. “Hi I don’t know you but I’m going to talk if it’s okay?!” she says. “I come from a long line of nontalkers.”More to See OnlineTheater to Stream: A World of Fringe and More ApplesAug. 26, 2020
The conflict I have often felt between being an observer and a participant in the stories I go to the theater to see is intensified and finally obviated by T41’s approach. You have to be both, at least in part so as not to seem rude to the actor, who is being both for you. I felt this most acutely in Stacey Rose’s “Thank You for Coming. Take Care,” directed (like “Thank You Letter”) by Candis C. Jones. Patrice Bell plays a woman serving a long sentence in prison; I played, and you will too if you see it, a foster parent who has been raising the woman’s daughter for two years and now hopes to adopt her.
“You don’t look anything like I expected,” Bell’s character says at the start. “Like your hair, I thought it’d be” — and here the script instructs her to describe a kind of hair that’s “opposite to” whatever yours is. “I thought it’d be blond” is what she said to me.
“Thank You for Coming,” so specific and evenhanded, would have been a heartbreaker in any format. But especially now, in moments like that, enhanced by terrific acting, you feel seen in a way that has been too often absent these six months — and maybe longer. Intimacy in the live theater is always touch-and-go. On display alone in our homes, we are much more seen than usual.
Seen and sometimes implicated. After all, everyone is part of everyone else’s story. In our isolation, it can be hard to remember that. From its title on, “Here We Are” is not about to let us forget.
By Jesse Green for the New York Times. Read the full article here.