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.