Mosaic Theater Company’s production of The Till Trilogy is a three-part play puzzling together the pieces of the tragic story of Emmett Till’s lynching. This piece is unlike anything I have ever seen. It beautifully brings together the fun and playful aspects of Emmett, making the tragedy even more heart wrenching than you initially knew it to be. Writer, Ifa Bayeza, presented a hefty task with an immaculate moment in history and Director, Talvin Wilks, rose to the occasion to transport you right into 1955, as if you personally knew those involved.
We begin the two-day event with part one: The Ballad of Emmett Till. The unraveling of the summer that will go down in history. Wary of knowing the end-result, you feel like you’re watching a lamb raised for slaughter. The dramatic irony is present amongst the audience, but once the production starts you can’t help but be captivated by the performance of Antonio Michael Woodard (Emmett “Bo; Bobo” Till). Telling this story is of monumental importance and you can see Woodard holds this task to the highest standard. It’s as if the bright-eyed Bo from Chicago is standing right in front of you – cracking jokes in his white suit with his special hat, charming those around him with his infectious energy. Again, making the ending even more difficult, feeling as if you’ve lost someone close to you. Mannerisms, movements, spoken rhythm – everything was done so flawlessly and naturally by this immensely talented actor.
Though our focus is on Bo for this first show, the story cannot be told without those around him – especially his mother, played by Billie Krishawn, Mamie Till-Bradley. No one can imagine the pain Mamie went through that dreadful summer, yet she does not back down to show the world the disaster she has been faced with. Krishawn portrayed the worries every parent fears when their child goes off on their own in such a personal way. The resilience she had to present after her child was brutally taken from her – a truly grueling task – was amazing. Krishawn embodied not just Mamie, but every other character she took on as well (Simeon Wright and Caroline Bryant). She was in the story as if it were real life. Her reactions felt genuine and she gracefully brought each character to life with the tiniest motions and facial expressions.
Completing the cast of The Ballad of Emmett Till, we have Rolonda Watts (Mamoo, Heluise Woods, and Miss Lizabeth), Jaysen Wright (Wheeler Parker and Roy Bryant), Jason Bowen (Mose Wright, Johnny B. Washington, and H.L. Loggins), and Vaughn Ryan Midder (Maurice Wright, Ruthie May Crawford, and J.W. “Big” Milam), all bringing together those who complete this story. Every person in this group knew this story needed to be told as close to perfect as it could be, and they certainly delivered. There were many hats that had to be worn and everyone worked in tandem with each other. With the many characters being taken on by such a small cast, it can be difficult for it to translate to the audience who is who at which moment. There was no struggle with this talented group. From making a turn, to altering their costume, to switching the accent, you knew when someone new had entered the scene – leaving much up for interpretation, but never causing confusion.
If you were challenged with seeing only one of the three parts, this show is the best for portraying the reality of Emmett Till’s story in a stunningly horrifying way. It’s such a captivating performance that will leave you with questions and possibly new knowledge that you didn’t have before. Reading about or hearing about it is one thing, but seeing everything unfold in the very room you’re sitting in is a completely new experience. You will grow attached to the characters and feel every emotion you can imagine. The content can be quite intense and disturbing, as it is like what Mamie felt the world needed to see, so you do need to consider if witnessing this is in your best interest. There was absolutely not a dry eye in the house.
The buzz continues throughout the greater Washington area as more people experience the riveting three-play event, “The Till Trilogy,” now on stage through Nov. 20 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast, performed in rotating repertory and presented by Mosaic Theater Company.
The trilogy of works includes: “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “That Summer in Sumner” and “Benevolence.”
Written by Ifa Bayeza and directed by Talvin Wilks, Mosaic Theater’s artistic director, Reginald L. Douglas, referred to the series of plays as “a testament to the power of theater to interrogate our past, provide insight into the world around us and inspire action and empathy as we look ahead.”
In fact, the playwright’s work, which focuses on the brief life and tragic murder of Emmett Till in 1955 in Money, Mississippi, sheds new light on history while calling us to action today.
Bayeza said the evolution of the work might be best described as “organic.”
“My first effort, ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till,’ when it was performed in Chicago in 2008, had wonderful moments and achieved many things but something wasn’t right to me,” she said. “I was trying to stuff too much into one play. The story was so full and rich that I couldn’t get everything in.”
“When a colleague at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles wanted to bring the ‘Ballad’ to the city, I knew that the venue was too small for the play and the ensemble. So, I began to explore how to make it manageable for small theaters. I truncated the play to just be Emmett’s story, following his journey the last seven days of his life and into the netherworld as well where he attempts to understand what has happened to him. It made it a much stronger play,” she said.
Bayeza, while pleased with the success of “Ballad” and the two other plays that would follow, said she began the process because she wanted to highlight the details behind a youth’s rite of passage – tragically aborted because of the intrusion of white violence.
In the second and third parts of the trilogy, she also gave attention to Mose Wright, Emmett’s uncle, who witnessed the youth’s abduction and who later testified in court against the accused murders, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam – an act which placed his life and the lives of his family in grave danger.
She also brought greater attention to the corps of reporters from the Black press, specifically members of Ebony and Jet, who attended the trial and shared the details with readers across the nation.
As Bayeza said, it remains a story that we can ill-afford to forget.
“The Till saga is a national foundational myth,” she said. “It’s a story for now – it’s always a timely story. We continue to return to it because we must. This story had so many crossroads of experience from the assassinations of the Kennedys to being the spark of the Civil Rights Movement to being the synergy and beginning of social music phases and genres like rock and roll.”
“My hope as an artist is that this story will serve as a means of healing and an acknowledgement of so many others who have endured trauma over the generations. It has a poetic resonance that allows for the inclusion of numerous manifestations of symbolism that I explore throughout the three plays.”
“ Ultimately, I wanted the trilogy to lift up others, especially mothers like Mamie Till, who are still going through similar forms of trauma and the loss of children either to urban or police violence. Before we can return to battle for justice and lead the next form of protest, we must experience the grief so the healing process can begin,” Bayeza said.
Decades in the making, a trio of plays celebrates the life of the murdered Black teen Emmett Till and commemorates his tragic 1955 death.
When playwright Ifa Bayeza set out in the late 1990s to tell the story of Emmett Till — the Black 14-year-old who was abducted and lynched by two White men in 1955 Mississippi — the United States was still recovering from a crack epidemic that disproportionately affected African American communities. In reflecting on Till, Bayeza says she wanted to “pull our own youth back from that brink, to say, ‘We have to see ourselves as human beings.’ ”
The result was “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” a celebration of Till’s life and retelling of his tragic death that premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2008. Now an updated version of that play is onstage at Mosaic Theater in repertory with two more Till-centric works from Bayeza: “Benevolence,” which debuted at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., in 2019, and the world premiere of “That Summer in Sumner.”
“The plays show why it is of value to understand our history and to witness it,” Wilks adds, “because these stories in many ways are still suppressed and repressed.”
Although the original production of “Ballad” was a sprawling, 2½-hour history play, Bayeza streamlined it into a 90-minute chamber piece for a 2010 production at Los Angeles’s Fountain Theatre. The distillation improved “Ballad,” Bayeza says, but she still found herself bothered by the scenes that she cut.
So Bayeza revisited some of that excised material, expanded on it and wrote “Benevolence,” a decades-spanning examination of Till’s legacy through the eyes of two couples — one Black, one White — grappling with his death. Earlier this year, she completed work on a third play, also derived from trimmed “Ballad” scenes: “That Summer in Sumner,” which explores the Till murder trial and the Black journalists who covered the case.
“The trilogy really evolved from my commitment to telling this sacred story as best I could,” Bayeza says, “and to represent it with the epic fullness that it felt like to me.”
Wilks directed a 2014 version of “Ballad” at Penumbra Theatre before returning there to helm the “Benevolence” premiere. In mounting the full trilogy, he has reimagined those productions so that all three plays work in harmony, while still functioning as stand-alone stories. Bayeza also massaged the plays’ through lines by tweaking the scripts throughout the rehearsal process.
“I learned a lot having directed those first two plays,” Wilks says. “There’s a foundation there. But thinking of them in tandem sort of is a whole new game. New collaborators, new artistry, new innovation, but also — I’ll say it — limitations. The framework brings a kind of limiting factor to how you uniquely envision each play.”
“It had already felt really relevant,” says Billie Krishawn, who plays six characters — including Till’s mother, Mamie — across the three plays. “But then the world shut down and the events throughout the pandemic happened, with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and countless names that I couldn’t even begin to list off and do it justice. Then I felt even deeper inside of the movement.”
Krishawn wasn’t alone in forging an intimate connection with Till’s story. Antonio Michael Woodard, who portrays Till in two of the plays, says he was making deliveries for DoorDash in his hometown of Oakland, Calif., when a man in an affluent neighborhood confronted him on the street and screamed a racial slur at him. “That ran through my body in a particular way,” Woodard recalls. With Till on his mind, he says, he kept his calm.
“You want to do something, but in this society, if I was to do something, I’d be in the wrong,” Woodard says. “Literally the next day, I kid you not, I got the offer to play Emmett Till. That’s how I know I’m interconnected and I have a mission. I’m on assignment to do this, because I don’t believe I would have gone through that for no reason.”
For the predominantly Black cast, the production’s challenges go beyond the creative and logistical burdens of playing various characters over multiple plays. There’s also the matter of processing the traumatic material. To help the Black actors navigate that challenge, Wilks says, the production has used mental health advisers and a fight and intimacy director.
“We have to be mindful of that wonderful, generous and courageous spirit,” Wilks says. “These actors are stepping into these roles to share these stories for a community still witnessing and wrestling and reckoning with this history.”
That history is still evolving. This past August, a Mississippi grand jury declined to indict Carolyn Bryant Donham, the White woman whose accusation of a sexual advance led to Till’s lynching, on charges of kidnapping and manslaughter, despite the discovery of an unserved warrant for her arrest. And “The Till Trilogy” isn’t alone in presenting an artistic depiction of Till’s story: The film “Till,” which tracks Mamie Till’s pursuit of justice following her son’s death, arrives in theaters this week.
“I do see the Till saga as a national foundation myth, really looking in an epic and poetic way at how the fault line of race cuts across geography, cuts across gender, cuts across class, cuts across politics and the law,” Bayeza says. “It’s like a flash of lightning in that so many elements come together in this tragedy of Emmett Till that it speaks to the time — whenever that time is.”
If you go
The Till Trilogy
Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. 202-399-7993, ext. 501. mosaictheater.org.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival will be presenting its inaugural Fall Reading Series. For over thirty years, the professional new play festival held performances in July. This is the first time the festival will offer programming outside of its traditional summer season.
Peggy McKowen, appointed as the festival’s Producing Artistic Director last year, selected the plays. “I was looking for plays that felt fresh – exploring themes and styles CATF has not recently produced.”
The plays produced in the Fall Reading Series are under consideration for CATF’s 2023 July season, which will be McKowen’s first season of curating the festival’s summer repertory.
The plays in the Fall Reading Series are: Spiritus/ Virgil’s Dance by Dael Orlandersmith; Our Shrinking Shrinking World by Richard Dresser; MAD by Sarah Bierstock; Your Name Means Dream by José Rivera; and Lavender Men by Roger Q. Mason
“These plays have some laughs, something we all need right now. But, they also have a strong sense of purpose about life,” said McKowen.
Readings will take place between October 21 and November 5 and will take place at the Marinoff Theater on the campus of Shepherd University, which hosts CATF, and at the Old Opera House in Charles Town, WV.
Audience members can determine their own admission price, with a suggested amount of $10.
For the full schedule, to make reservations, and for more information about the Contemporary American Theater Festival’s Fall Reading Series, visit CATF online at catf.org.
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?”
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 indictCarolyn 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.
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.
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.) mosaictheatre.org. $50–$64.
Review by Jared Strange for the Washington City Paper.