The Climate Crisis and Theater — A Playwright’s Perspective

Do we feel the environment breakdown in our gut? Will people looking back see art that conveyed the existential threat of the emergency?

Playwright Tira Palmquist — “I’m drawn to stories or art work that make the questions (and potential answers) immediate, visceral, possible.”

Back in 2005, author and environment activist Bill McKibben wrote a piece called “What the Warming World Needs Now is Art, Sweet Art” in which he wondered why the climate crisis had “yet to register in our gut,” that it hadn’t become part of our culture: “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had a real political effect. I mean, when people someday look back at our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking of temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.”

Nearly two decades have passed, and our culture has changed. Far more books, poems, plays, and even “goddamn operas” inspired by the climate crisis have been produced. But do we feel the environment breakdown in our gut? Will people looking back see art that conveyed the existential threat of the emergency? Have artists dealing with the climate meltdown had any “real” political effect? I would argue that our art has not delivered a gut punch and that contemporary American theater has pretty much been missing in action. And that is symptomatic of our dangerous embrace of denial — or is that innocent trust? — that those who got us into this mess are going to get us out, without our pushing them with all of our might to do the right thing. “Perhaps the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis,” observed Bayo Akomolafe. Producers can’t decide how climate change should be presented to theatergoers: they fear that scripts that come on too strong will scare off well-heeled audiences. Preaching is frowned upon. The scripts I have read tend to separate into three categories: warnings that inaction contributes to the coming catastrophe, dramatizations of people seeking solutions, and utopian scenarios that posit an optimistic vision to work toward, including eco-socialism and ecodharma.

These theatrical approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Scripts that combine elements from each might be the most effective. But theaters have up until now generally ignored the forces that need to be placed center stage — politics, class, and spirituality. Of course, stage companies, for the sake of maintaining “business as usual,” neglect these hot-button targets. But those who are pumping out hothouse gases — and their enablers — must be confronted. The fossil fuel industry is not the only culprit, but its collaborators, including megabanks and governments, through greed and arrogance are killing the planet. It is time to name names. In the American Repertory Theater’s Ocean Filibuster, for example, the polluted oceans were given (intentionally?) bad legal advice: they should have been suing oil and gas companies, wealthy countries, oligarchs, megabanks, and dictators, not “Mr. Majority.” The future will call for stories that strengthen our primal interconnection with nature, tales inspired by the biophiliac perspectives of Indigenous people: “Before, nature had a life and spirit of its own. The trees, skies, and rivers were living spirits. Now we are only concerned with how they can serve us.” — Phra Paisal Wisalo. Finally, stage companies should be challenged: how can they help create the kind of broad collective — across the classes — that will be needed if we are going to force the necessary changes? Dealing with the crisis will call for well-led and well-organized groups of people, millions (eventually) who will demand that we slow and then reverse our mad dash toward extinction. Theaters could be one of the institutions that inspire that broad alignment, strengthening the resolve of what might become an army of dissenters from the neoliberal status quo.

A partial model for this partnership would be ’60s protest theater, which drew on the era’s spirit of civil disobedience. Companies such as Bread and Puppet Theater, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and The Living Theatre were spawned by — and at times coordinated with — the era’s protest movements. They staged entertaining but pointed works that raged against the Vietnam war and capitalism, that condemned race and gender discrimination. What’s missing today is that crucial link between the stage and real-life efforts to demand justice and confront authority. I suspect it is because our highly commercialized, Broadway-crazed companies are genuflecting to economic interests. Outside of this hermetically sealed Neverland, however, protests — in the streets, at private airports, and in the lobbies of banks condemning fossil fuel companies and their investors — are growing in number and fervency. And these could be used to inspire drama that explores acts of rebellion and repression, such as 2016’s generation-defining struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline or the growing number of lawsuits being brought against countries because of their grievous inaction.

Greta Thunberg leads climate action campaigners in a march in Stockholm on November 25. Photo: @GretaThunberg/Twitter

More outrage is sure to come as environmental disintegration continues without the requisite global responses. As public anger mounts, I am confident our “concerned” stage companies will find it difficult to remain so comfortably disengaged. Lip service will wear thin as the earth warms and the oceans further acidify. The sooner this indifference — driven by short-term concerns and fealty to head-in-the-sand conventionality — ends, the better. People in the future will look back at the passivity of our stage artists with justifiable disgust. Why were they so timid as the earth tipped into environmental free fall?

In that spirit, I wanted to talk to a dramatist who has written theater pieces on the climate emergency. Tira Palmquist has penned one play about the crisis, Two Degrees, which has been produced professionally. She is currently writing another script about the warming planet. I asked her about why so few dramas are being produced about the crisis, greenwashing in the arts, and what she thought about the chances for the appearance of activist theater.

[NoteA staged reading of Two Degrees, co-presented by Central Square Theater and Catalyst Collaborative@MIT (as part of their Science on Stage reading series), will take place at the MIT Museum, 314 Main Street, Cambridge, on December 5 at 6:30 p.m. 6 p.m. cash bar and refreshments. The performance will be followed by a conversation with a guest scientist.]

The Arts Fuse: Researchers at HowlRound have noticed the low engagement with the topic of climate breakdown by theater practitioners and members of the industry around the country. Why do you think that is, given the enormity of the emergency?

Tira Palmquist: I think the level of engagement is connected to how overwhelming we perceive the problem to be. But also, I think many people think — and who could blame them — that there’s a kind of inevitability to the issue. No matter how we tell the story, the story is, “And we all die in the end.” And who wants to go to plays where that’s the inevitable, predictable outcome? Basically, what an effing downer, and let’s go see a comedy instead.

I think that people don’t want to be yelled at, nor do I think that yelling at people changes their minds. That’s not to say that yelling isn’t appropriate, given the size and scope and terror of the problem. But I wonder if this has something to do with the power of boards regarding programming. That is to say, that the issue of engagement and what plays get programmed have less to do with what the audience wants, or will tolerate, and more to do with what sells, or what is perceived to be sellable. That’s unfortunate, but true.

AF: You have written a play about the climate emergency and plan to do another. What are the challenges of writing scripts about climate change?

Palmquist: The first challenge has to do with your first question. Are there other stories instead of the tragic story we think we all know?

The second challenge is being more precise about what we mean when we say “I’m writing a play about climate change.” That topic is so broad, so unwieldy. Sort of like saying, “I’m writing a play about history!” So, like any writing challenge, it comes down to clarifying what the story is. Whose story is this? What do they want? What’s the conflict? What’s the obstacle, standing in the way of the fulfillment of their desires?

Kathleen McCall in Two Degrees at the Jones Theatre. Photo: AdamsVisCom for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

With Two Degrees, for example, I knew I wanted to write a play about a woman, a scientist. I knew I wanted to write a play about grief. But I also knew it wasn’t just? a story about grief. It was, essentially, a play about how we have to figure out what to do? with all that grief, how to figure out how to communicate. Recently, someone told me about something that Anthony Fauci (apparently) said: Science + politics = politics. And if that formula is true, then what can science do not to get erased? That’s essentially Emma’s journey in the play: to find a way forward, fueled by fury.

The third challenge in writing a play about the climate is to do the research, to understand the science, to get all that right. I think it’s an absolute necessity to learn the science and communicate that science — clearly and effectively. Because, ultimately, I think knowledge is? power — and we have to trust our audiences enough not to dumb that down.

AF: What role, if any, should local institutions play in helping theaters deal with climate breakdown, in terms of making facilities and organizational practices greener? What might educational institutions, banks, and philanthropies think about doing?

Palmquist: That’s an excellent question that I’m not sure I can answer completely — but one thing that can help making theaters greener is to have shared resources — such as clearinghouses of sets, costumes, set pieces, and the like. I also think that there’s a lot we can do to encourage the use of local resources and hiring local talent. I recognize that these may seem overly simplistic — but not having to fly in artists from around the country when communities may already have those artists available can certainly help.

I think this is related to what institutions and philanthropies can support in terms of these more sustainable practices. I mean, these are interconnected systems — and funders or backers might need help in seeing the value in funding more local initiatives.

AF: Address the thorny issue of theater and greenwashing. How can we distinguish between radical approaches that meet the demand of frontline communities and efforts that are simply about commercial lip-service?

Palmquist: I hope I know exactly what you mean in this question. I think you mean — is it enough to have QR codes and not print programs? No. After all, making your patrons use their electronic devices rather than providing a paper program is still a use of resources. (And if you don’t have free WiFi, then, please, don’t do this.) Is it enough to have recycling in the lobby? Probably not, especially if you still have plastic cups and plastic bottles. So a more radical approach to hospitality or front-of-house aspects of audience hosting might be necessary. But this probably requires hiring more front-of-house staff, and that’s another? thing that some theaters don’t have the budget to cover. So, funders take note: not all staffing issues are artistic staff, and these staffing requirements are just as important as hiring artists.

There are many other issues about more sustainable practices that are complicated by the realities of small theaters’ budgets. For example: Productions require electrical power to run lights. How many theatrical spaces have solar panels or battery systems? Probably not a lot. This is partially because — again — that’s just not in the budget, and I’ve seen grants that will pay for everything except? capital campaigns or brick-and-mortar upgrades to a venue. That’s one place where institutions or philanthropies could help arts organizations to operate more sustainably, and make a measurable difference in the long-term carbon footprint of the performing arts.

AF: What are some of the strongest scripts (or art work) that you have come across — and why are they effective?

Palmquist: Well, of course, I’m mighty fond of my own scripts.

I’m drawn to stories or art work that make the questions (and potential answers) immediate, visceral, possible. For example, the visual/installation artist Olafur Eliasson does astounding things with ice and temperature and space — making the audience confront the changing world.

Paula Plum and Karen MacDonald SpeakEasy Stage’s 2020 production of The Children. Photo: Maggie Hall Photography

Two of my favorite plays that I think of as climate change plays (or, at least, plays about our future world) are The Children by Lucy Kirkwood and Mr. Burns by Anne Washburn. These are successful because they demonstrate the alarming capacity for humans to fail to deal appropriately or effectively with devastating change — and they put our human responses in the center of the play. I also love these plays because they don’t offer overreductive questions or oversimplified answers. They are complicated, unsettling stories about what it means to make sense of difficult moments, that challenge our role in the world, or our role in how it fails or thrives.

AF: In a HowlRound essay, Thomas Peterson argues that “the climate crisis demands new, locally specific plays to respond to the unique challenges of the place in which they are created and performed. After all, climate change impacts different places in different ways and at different times, challenging the very possibility of universal climate stories.” Do you agree?

Palmquist: Absolutely. This is one reason why I started my new play Memory of Winter. This play is set, primarily, on or near Lake Superior. People think about Northern Minnesota as somehow beyond the effects of climate change, as a “climate refuge.” But of course that’s not true. While Duluth might not see the same climate effects of, say, Las Vegas or San Diego, changes are happening there. And this may be part and parcel of why people don’t perceive the real and profound threat of the climate emergency. If we think of climate change as only one thing (melting ice caps, for example), and we don’t see that one thing anywhere near us, then it’s easy to dismiss the emergency altogether. As humans, we’re very good at minimizing changes as they happen slowly, over time. You know: frogs in pots, unable to see the threat gradually cooking us.

I also think something that we don’t talk about enough is how climate change impacts different communities inequitably. Someone might ask, how can climate change be racist? How can climate change be classist? Racism and classism is baked into the system, into the design of our cities, in the inequitable response after disasters. This is one reason why I think the art and the plays should come from the very communities that are under the greatest threat from the kinds of impacts we’re seeing in this changing world. Their stories matter, and should be in front of us.

Aimee Doherty, Joseph Marrella, Gillian Mackay-Smith, and Linsey McWhorter in the Lyric Stage’s 2016 production of Mr. Burns. Photo: Mark S. Howard

AF: Why aren’t theater practitioners and members of the industry more politically engaged regarding the climate breakdown? Agit-prop theater has traditionally been involved in protests. In this case, one of the targets would be the power of the fossil fuel giants.

Palmquist: I suppose the real question is what it means to be politically engaged, and what political engagement looks like. Agit-prop has, to some extent, gone out of style, though the need for agit-prop has not vanished. But ultimately, I don’t think agit-prop is the only game in town. It’s like … the activists throwing soup on paintings. These are headline-catching events, and certainly that has some appeal — but what impact do these events have, past the headlines? I’m not sure.

I think it’s a genuinely useful question, though, to ask what it means to be politically engaged, and what it means to engage with the public. I’d like to broaden our definition of what “political theater” is. If the ultimate goal is to have these kinds of profound and lasting conversations with the public, then we need to have theater that matters to people, stories that matter, stories in which our audience can see themselves, and can see their role in all this.

Article by Bill Marx for Arts Fuse.

A haunting portrait of Emmett Till comes full circle in ‘Till Trilogy’ by Ifa Bayeza

Mosaic Theater Company stages all three of Ifa Bayeza’s history-based plays. The most intriguing is the second part, “Benevolence.”

Review by Celia Wren for The Washington Post.

Antonio Michael Woodard as Emmett Till in “That Summer in Sumner.” (Teresa Castracane)

In a chillingly lyrical moment in Ifa Bayeza’s play “Benevolence,” a guilty Mississippi woman sees a vision in a burning cloth. It’s 1955, and this White 20-something surely knows her husband is off killing Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old, whom she has accused of making inappropriate advances. When a potholder catches fire while she’s making coffee, Caroline Bryant perceives the boy’s smile in the flame.

Young Emmett haunts that smoldering fabric much as he haunts this play: a presence more powerful for being literally absent. He isn’t a character in “Benevolence,” unlike in “The Ballad of Emmett Till” and “That Summer in Sumner,” the two other plays in Bayeza’s history-based “The Till Trilogy,” mounted by Mosaic Theater Company. Instead, “Benevolence” — the most intriguing of the three — knits together stories that deepen and in some ways complicate our understanding of both Till’s murder and its context.

Staged by director Talvin Wilks, and featuring marvelous performances, “Benevolence” initially spotlights Caroline Bryant (Anna Theoni DiGiovanni), her brutish husband, Roy (Scott Ward Abernethy), and one of Roy’s brothers (also Abernethy), with whom she has an affair. Thanks to time shifts, and Mona Kasra’s projections (including moths around a lightbulb), there’s an intermittent fever-dream quality to the portrait of the Bryants’ lust, boredom, narcissism and — in the men’s case — machismo.

Anna Theoni DiGiovanni and Scott Ward Abernethy in “Benevolence,” the second part of “The Till Trilogy.” (Teresa Castracane)

In a symphonic development of theme, a second narrative reprises, but alters, the motif of a flawed marriage, presenting us with two Black Mississippians, Beulah and Clinton Melton (Billie Krishawn and Vaughn Ryan Midder), estranged in 1955. It’s a wrenchingly sad story, but Bayeza folds in rich comic relief, through a precocious 9-year-old neighbor (a very funny Rolonda Watts) who talks Clinton’s ear off.

Billie Krishawn and Vaughn Ryan Midder in “Benevolence.” (Teresa Castracane)

Humor also buoys “Summer,” a splendidly acted and mostly engrossing world premiere that draws on courtroom transcripts and other primary sources to chronicle the trial and acquittal of Till’s accused killers. (In a program note, Bayeza notes that the trilogy employs some dramatic license, including certain composite characters.)

Protagonists include the members of the Black press whose coverage helped make Till’s murder an inflection point in American history. Notwithstanding personal danger, and the harrowing events they’re covering, Jet magazine photographer David “Jax” Jackson (Midder), Ebony journalist Clotye Murdock (Watts, radiating dry wit) and Johnson Publications reporter Simeon Booker (Jaysen Wright) maintain a bantering camaraderie — think “The Front Page,” but with more dread.

At the same time, trial scenes — and a frantic search for additional witnesses to Till’s abduction and killing — create considerable suspense. Not that courtroom-drama pleasures risk eclipsing the play’s broader vista, what with the anguish of Till’s mother (Krishawn, all aching grace) and great uncle (Jason Bowen), and the undisguised bigotry of local authorities, including the sheriff (Chris Genebach). And for audiences who see more than one of these plays, an awareness of recurring characters and performances, and the starkness of Andrew Cohen’s anchoring wooden set, add a sense of unflinching contemplation of bitter facts.

Young Emmett (Antonio Michael Woodard) does show up in “Summer,” as a figure whose ebullient chattiness — as in “Ballad” — usurps too much dramaturgical focus. Giving a vibrant voice to Till, in real life silenced so young, is worthy. But it’s a shame when the character’s verbosity distracts from the trilogy’s other achievements: history rendered with immediacy, with tones and perspectives sometimes engagingly varied. Vivid snapshots, and yet panorama.

The Ballad of Emmett Till, That Summer in Sumner and Benevolence, by Ifa Bayeza. Directed by Talvin Wilks. Lighting, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Danielle Preston; sound and music, Kwamina “Binnie” Biney. “Ballad’: About 1 hour 50 minutes, through Nov. 19. “Summer”: About 2 hours 45 minutes, through Nov. 20. “Benevolence”: About 2 hours 15 minutes, through Nov. 19. Part of “The Till Trilogy” at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE.

Tyrone L. Robinson as Associate Director for SUNSET BOULEVARD at The Kennedy Center

Broadway Center Stage: Sunset Boulevard

Alone in her Hollywood mansion with little more than celluloid memories, former silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond remains what she has always been: the greatest star of all. For Broadway Center Stage, Tony-winning powerhouse Stephanie J. Block takes on the iconic role. Based on the 1950 film noir, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece—winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical on its release—weaves a compelling tale of romance, obsession, and faded glory.

Feb. 1 – 8, 2023

Get your tickets here.

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film

Everything is as if we never said goodbye…”

Alone in her Hollywood mansion with little more than celluloid memories, former silent-screen goddess Norma Desmond remains what she has always been: the greatest star of all. For Broadway Center Stage, Tony®-winning powerhouse Stephanie J. Block (The Cher Show, Falsettos, Wicked) takes on the iconic role. Based on the 1950 film noir, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tony-winning masterpiece weaves a compelling tale of romance, obsession, and faded glory.

Block is joined by Tony Award® nominee Derek Klena (Jagged Little Pill, Moulin Rouge! The Musical) as Joe Gillis,  Auli‘i Cravalho (Moana, Rise, The Little Mermaid Live!) as Betty Schaefer, and internationally renowned Grammy Award®–winning baritone Nathan Gunn as Max von Mayerling.

This new production from the Kennedy Center’s critically acclaimed Broadway Center Stage series will be directed by Sammi Cannold (Evita at New York City Center, Ragtime on Ellis Island), with choreography by Emily Maltby (For You Paige: A TikTok Musical, Evita at New York City Center) and music direction by Ben Cohn (Dear Evan Hansen). Tyrone L. Robinson (the Kennedy Center’s Show Way) will be the Associate Director. The lush score will be performed onstage by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.

Casting by JZ Casting

Recommended for age 12 and up.

Orchestrations by David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber
Original Production by The Really Useful Group Ltd.

‘The Till Trilogy’ Does Not Glorify Emmett Till’s Death but Celebrates His Life, History, and Community

Opening at Mosaic Theatre Company on Oct. 4, the trilogy’s director, “We know the end at the beginning, so the point of Ballad is to give him that joy back.”

“What if we think about Till’s legacy rather than his death?”

Director Talvin Wilks in rehearsal for That Summer in Sumner; Credit: Billie Krishawn

This is the question that animates Mosaic Theatre Company’s The Till Trilogy, an ambitious mounting of playwright Ifa Bayeza’s three-part opus chronicling the life, death, and enduring influence of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal murder in 1955 helped fire the civil rights movement. Two of the plays—The Ballad of Emmett Till, which follows young Emmett on his fateful trip to Mississippi; and Benevolence, a look at two couples, one Black and one White, wrestling with Till’s murder—have previously been onstage. Now Bayeza completes the saga with That Summer in Sumner, a dramatization of the Mississippi trial that set Till’s killers free paired with the story of the Black journalists who endeavored to uncover the truth.

The three plays are staged in repertory with a company of 10 actors; audiences can enjoy the plays in any order, and each stands on its own. The production anchors a sprawling series of free events dedicated to honoring Till’s legacy, with discussions and readings taking place in museums, community centers, and libraries across the D.C. metro area. Together, the unique repertory and extensive programming represent an opportunity for Mosaic, under the new leadership of Artistic Director Reginald L. Douglas, to strengthen local ties and draw audiences into a pivotal moment in American civil rights history—one that Bayeza has described, unabashedly, as the stuff of myth and epic.

Born into a family of artists and activists, Bayeza has always mixed creativity with politics. At 15, she got her first summer job working with her father, a physician, at a migrant camp in New Jersey, where workers often lived in destitute conditions. She vividly recalls one child, maybe 8 years old, whose body was riddled with rat bites and whose face was so world-weary he looked like an old man. “That was a transformative moment,” she tells City Paper. “Seeing what were, to me, the last vestiges of what American slavery was like, I was so stunned that I committed myself to chronicling my people. The wonder and allure of theater was the way I thought I could best do it.”

It was the early 1970s and around that same time Bayeza first learned the story of Emmett Till via a reprint of Jet magazine. Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, famously demanded an open-casket funeral so the world could see what Jim Crow injustice had wrought on her child; she urged Jet to publish photos of his body, and the publication quickly took the story national. Like many, the teenage Bayeza was horrified, and changed, by what she saw.

As an adult, Bayeza delved into Till’s life, even meeting with friends and family members who knew him personally. Her findings generated the foundations of The Ballad of Emmett Till, which premiered in 2008 at the Goodman Theatre in Till’s hometown of Chicago. One of Till’s childhood friends spoke to Bayeza personally and gave the play her stamp of approval. “She wrote me a letter to say that she had to close her eyes to realize that wasn’t Emmett on the stage,” Bayeza says.

Since its debut, The Ballad has been produced across the country, even as Bayeza has tinkered with its structure to accommodate different casting demands. Now, with the repertory at Mosaic, she has a chance not only to bring the project full circle with That Summer in Sumner but to mold all three plays into a collective, a process she describes as both exciting and daunting.

She has an experienced hand at the wheel in Talvin Wilks, who directed a previous production of The Ballad and the 2018 world premiere of Benevolence, both at Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mosaic’s previous artistic director, Ari Roth, attended the debut of Benevolence, and initiated plans to produce the full trilogy in D.C. Wilks remained attached to the Mosaic project despite Roth’s departure in the fall of 2020 and the cancellation of the run originally planned for that year.

While The Ballad and Benevolence are familiar territory, Wilks sees his work as anything but a retread. “Can you learn from and be informed by the first idea, but not necessarily replicate it?” he muses. “This is not like a touring production or a road show; it’s actually, in its own right, a new production.”

These new productions come at a time when Till’s case is garnering fresh press. In August, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman who accused Till of harassing her, prompting her husband, Roy Bryant, and his brother J.W. Milam to kidnap, torture, and lynch the boy. The grand jury’s decision came after the June discovery of an unserved arrest warrant that named all three on suspicion of kidnapping and manslaughter. Later this year, a high-profile film titled Till, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, will bring the events to the screen while drawing focus to Mamie Till-Mobley’s activism.

For Wilks, these developments might make the case seem newly relevant, but it’s all part of a much larger arc. “There’s always been a call on Emmett Till when we’ve traveled through the elements of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown,” he reminds us. “Emmett and Mamie Till are of our legacy.” As for what the new developments mean for the production, Wilks understands it might bring people to the theater, but insists it doesn’t impact how they think about the work.

Jaysen Wright, Vaughn Midder, and Rolonda Watts in rehearsal for That Summer in Sumner; Credit: Billie Krishawn, who plays Mamie Till-Mobley, among others, and serves as the production’s unofficial photographer.

What does impact the work is Bayeza’s drive to recapture who Emmett was as a person before he became a tragic icon. During rehearsal for a pivotal scene in The Ballad in which Emmett, known by his nickname “Bo,” pleads with his mother to let him travel to Mississippi, Wilks emphasized the need to embrace Black boy joy. “It’s very important because that’s what Ifa has done with Ballad, especially, and even in the way he travels through That Summer in Sumner,” Wilks says. “It’s giving him his adolescence back, seeing him as a joyful child who loved to tell jokes, loved bubble gum, loved nice things, and was quite a dresser. We know the end at the beginning, so the point of Ballad is to give him that joy back.”

During the scene, Bo is portrayed by three actors, forming his own chorus. The Ballad’s “fulltime” Bo, Antonio Michael Woodard, along with Vaughn Ryan Midder and Jaysen Wright, tease and plead with his mother, played by Billie Krishawn. Wilks and the cast work through the beats at the table in a rehearsal room covered by a comprehensive historical timeline, courtesy of the production’s dramaturg, Dr. Faedra Chatard Carpenter. With the help of choreographer and assistant director Sandra L. Holloway, the scene rises from the table and lands on its feet as a sort of doo-wop number. The three Bos step to and from Krishawn’s Mamie, snapping in time, moving lithe and free like the man he is itching to become.

Throughout the scene, Mamie instructs her son to mind his place—to not even look at White women, let alone speak to them. “Mississippi is not Chicago,” Mamie reminds him sharply. “It’s the South.” The warning rings hollow against his youthful vigor but carries a heavy burden of history for the contemporary audience.

At the Anacostia Community Museum, site of one Mosaic’s many community events, Bayeza performed a reading of the same scene and several others before opening the floor to discussion. Her knowing rendition of Till’s adolescent longings earned appreciative laughs, and the room hummed with agreement as she described the poetry threaded through Till’s history. Others testified to the grim personal significance of Till’s story, echoing Bayeza’s teenage awakening.

Playwright Ifa Bayeza speaks at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center as part of Mosaic’s community engagement opportunities; Credit: Jhon Ochoa

Similar events dot the calendar throughout the fall, forming the expansive outreach that Douglas sees as fundamental to his mission. “We want to be an organization that can bring people together, and that’s inherent in our name: Mosaic,” he explains. “Different people, different perspectives, coming together to create something beautiful.” It’s one of many signature projects Douglas is overseeing in his first full season, which also includes a multiyear oral history project focused on H Street NE and a series of infrastructural changes designed to make Mosaic a better place to work.

Like Bayeza, Douglas grew up seeing art and activism in unity with one another. “So much of The Till Trilogy is an opportunity not to forget, but also a call to action,” he says. “A call to not repeat those mistakes of the past, to reconsider our relationship to justice and to one another.” For Bayeza, The Till Trilogy arrives at a point when addressing those mistakes is vital to stemming the tide of White hostility that echoes Mississippi circa 1955. “I’m hoping this will alert us to what we’re up against,” she warns. “And then get us thinking creatively and positively about what we can do, what we need to do, and how we’re gonna do it.”

“Rebuilding the public square is what theater can do,” she adds. As its ambitions attest, Mosaic Theatre Company is running on that same conviction.

The Till Trilogy, written by Ifa Bayeza and directed by Talvin Wilks, runs in repertory Oct. 4 through Nov. 20 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. (The Ballad of Emmett Till opens Oct. 4; That Summer in Sumner opens Oct. 5; and Benevolence opens Oct. 6.) $50–$64.

Review by Jared Strange for the Washington City Paper.

Theatre Review: ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ at Mosaic Theatre Company

The cast of The Till Trilogy: ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till.’ Photo courtesy of Mosaic Theater Company.

The story of Emmett Till is not an easy story to tell. It is a story that is kept out of history books because it is the brutalization of a Black, teenage boy from Chicago who did not return home alive from a trip to Mississippi. Emmett Till, whose nickname was “Bobo,” was visiting his family in the summer of 1955 when he whistled at a white woman working at a store. This simple action led to his kidnapping and torturous murder. The death of Emmett Till was one of the factors that led to the historic civil rights movement across the South.

The collaboration between Bayeza, Wilks, and the phenomenal actors acknowledges the voices of history that should never be forgotten.

Knowing the story and seeing it come to life on stage is like reading a book and already knowing the ending. It is not about the end, but the journey of who Emmett Till was before his wrongful murder at fourteen years old. His life before his death needs to be told and remembered. The play is the first part of a trilogy presented by the Mosaic Theater Company and recalls the last two weeks of his life. Written by Ifa Bayeza, it is directed by Talvin Wilks. The collaboration between Bayeza, Wilks, and the phenomenal actors acknowledges the voices of history that should never be forgotten.

The play’s first scene begins with a beautiful harmonization about the spirit of Emmett Till and the power of his name. The ensemble cast of five, along with Antonio Michael Woodard who plays Emmett Till, envelope the stage with church-like essence by praising the life the young boy had before his murder. The ensemble actors, Billie Krishawn, Rolonda Watts, Jaysen Wright, Jason Bowen, and Vaughn Ryan Midder remind the audience that Till was an innocent child, loving the life that he had.

As Emmett Till, Antonio Michael Woodard delivers a powerful performance by embracing the youthfulness of a young child. His embodiment of Till depicts true, Black boy joy in 1955. His character is seen dancing on stage with Billie Krishawn (Mamie Till-Bradley), joking around with his best friend Wheeler (Jaysen Wright), mocking his family members, having crushes on girls, speaking his mind, stuttering, and other childlike antics. The story goes into detail about the culture shock he faced traveling from Chicago to Mississippi and how children in the south grew up differently than children in other parts of the country. All the actors should be commended for balancing a heart-wrenching story with moments of joy. To tell this story takes a strength that goes beyond words.  

The audience must remember that this story is not fictional. Emmett Till’s death still haunts communities around America and has impacted families for generations. These stories of pain should not be glorified but a call to action against racism in this country.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: Racial violence, racial slurs, and brutality.

“The Ballad of Emmett Till” and the rest of the trilogy runs through November 20, 2022 at The Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. For more information and purchase tickets, click here. Masks are still required in performance spaces and theaters, but masking in public areas such as lobbies is optional.

Article by Camron Wright for the Maryland Theatre Guide.