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.
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.
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. mosaictheater.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.
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.
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.