Mosaic Theater’s ‘Till Trilogy’ arrives with uncanny timeliness

Decades in the making, a trio of plays celebrates the life of the murdered Black teen Emmett Till and commemorates his tragic 1955 death.

Antonio Michael Woodard as Emmett Till in “The Ballad of Emmett Till.” (Teresa Castracane)

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.’ ”

Ifa Bayeza, Playwright

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.”

Together, the three plays — all directed by Talvin Wilks and drawing from the same 10-person cast — make up “The Till Trilogy.” While the drug epidemic that prompted the project is mercifully in the past, the social justice movement’s resurgence and the corresponding conversation over how to teach Black American history have punctuated the subject matter’s importance in newfound ways.

“It feels particularly timely,” Bayeza says, referring to Till’s murder — often credited with sparking the civil rights movement. “But it is, unfortunately, timeless.”

“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.

Anna Theoni DiGiovanni, left, and Scott Ward Abernethy as Carolyn and Roy Bryant in “Benevolence.” (Teresa Castracane)

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.”

The Mosaic production has been a long time coming: Wilks and the “Till Trilogy” company were a month into rehearsal in the spring of 2020 when pandemic closures put the endeavor on hold. Since then, real-world developments have deepened the plays’ resonance, from the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 to the Emmett Till Antilynching Act that President Biden signed into law earlier this year.

“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.”

Front seat, from left: Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder; back seat, from left: Scott Ward Abernethy and Rolonda Watts play journalists from Ebony and Jet magazine in “That Summer in Sumner.” (Teresa Castracane)

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.

Dates: Through Nov. 20.

Prices: $50-$64 per play.

Review by Thomas Floyd for the Washington Post.

It’s Officially Till Trilogy Week in DC !

Playwright Ifa Bayeza holds a proclamation given by the DC City Council and Chairman Phil Mendelson designating the second week of October as The Till Trilogy Week.

Mayor, City Council Proclamations Designate Till Trilogy Week in Washington, DC

Over the weekend, we were honored to have members of Congress, City government, the Till family, and Mosaic supporters experience The Till Trilogy together. Mayor Muriel Bowser awarded a proclamation to Mosaic and the City Council and Chairman Phil Mendelson formally named this week “The Till Trilogy Week” in the District of Columbia.

Join us to see these potent, important works.

Marvin Bowser, brother of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, reads a statement from the Mayor acknowledging the  admirable work of playwright Ifa Bayeza and Mosaic Theater to stage The Till Trilogy in the nation’s capital. 
Ifa Bayeza accepts a proclamation from the DC City Council naming the second week of October The Till Trilogy Week.

Embracing Arlington Arts Releases EMMETT TILL TRILOGY AND RACIAL JUSTICE Education Podcast Series

Four Mosaic Theater Company partners making this exciting premiere of a rotating repertory production of the Emmett Till Trilogy of plays.

The non-profit organization Embracing Arlington Artss has released its “Emmett Till Trilogy and Racial Justice – Theaters Keeping the Conversation Going” four-part Educational Podcast Series.

Four Mosaic Theater Company partners making this exciting premiere of a rotating repertory production of the Emmett Till Trilogy of plays (“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” “That Summer in Sumner,” and “Benevolence”) possible were interviewed for the podcast.

“This latest Embracing Arlington Arts Educational Podcast Series focuses not only on the premiere, but also to embellish and continue the conversation about racial justice in our nation today and to discuss how the theater industry is, and should be spurring those discussions,” stated Janet Kopenhaver, the organization’s president.

Playwright, Ifa Bayeza

The Educational Podcast series features renowned playwright Ifa Bayeza who wrote all three plays; Talvin Wilks, Director; Reginald Douglas, Artistic Director of Mosaic Theater Company; and Antonio Michael Woodard, Actor (portraying Emmett Till). All four expressed their views and insight on the continued impact of this critical event in our country’s history and the responsibility of the theater industry to keep the conversation going.

Ms. Bayeza wrote this series of plays to “celebrate the joy and majesty of this family.” She is hoping to challenge our contemporary audiences to think about what we are going to do to end racial injustice. “If the Till saga was the spark of the Civil Rights movement, I hope to stimulate sparks in audience members to do something,” she concluded in the interview.

Mr. Wilks offered resounding support for the importance of the media in bringing visibility to the injustices of racism, but questions “why does it take an image to gain people’s attention?” He also expounded upon why these plays are important to see in order to understand the significant impact of the Emmett Till murder in our nation’s history.

As Mosaic Theater Company’s Artistic Director, Mr. Douglas expressed his strong belief that the theater industry plays a big role in spurring audience members to become active and energized about combating racial injustice. “I do think that art is action,” Douglas explained. “It sparks dialogue about our community, makes people think and to take action,” Douglas added.

Rounding out the series was a very thought-provoking interview with Actor Antonio Michael Woodard who portrays Emmett Till. To him, theater has always been a catalyst for change and an instrument to encourage conversations about important social issues in our nation. He urged audience members to see the plays to understand what happened in 1955 and to ensure that it never happens again. “You can’t get where you’re going until you look back,” he concluded.

The Till Trilogy is a series of plays by noted playwright Ifa Bayeza that reflect on the life, death, and legacy of Emmett Till, whose murder in 1955 remains one of the most pivotal moments in American history. Under the direction of the acclaimed Talvin Wilks, the three plays – The Ballad of Emmett Till, Benevolence, and the world premiere That Summer in Sumner – will star 10 actors performing in rotating repertory for the first time. Filled with music, poetry, and imagination, this rare theatrical event will honor the ongoing fight for racial justice in our country and offer audiences of all ages an opportunity for collective reckoning, reflection, and response. Mosaic Theater Company of DC produces bold, culturally diverse theater that illuminates critical issues, elevates fresh voices, and sparks connection among communities throughout our region and beyond.

Embracing Arlington Arts is a non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the vibrancy and health of arts and culture. Interested supporters are encouraged to “follow” and “like” us on Facebook; and follow us on Twitter.

For more information, contact Janet Kopenhaver at

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?”

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.

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

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.

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.”

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

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.) $50–$64.

Review by Jared Strange for the Washington City Paper.

Review: Cal Shakes’ dazzling new ‘Lear,’ set in the ’60s Fillmore District, takes the tragedy to another level

Everyone knows King Lear, the volatile monarch who tries to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and loses it all in the process.

But seeing “Lear,” Marcus Gardley’s bold new adaptation of Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy, is enough to make you wonder whether you’ve ever really grasped the full impact of the original play.

Gardley lops off the “King” designation, retelling the story of the flawed title character in bracing contemporary terms, taking it out of the distant past and bringing it into the here and now.

Well, definitely the here, and almost the now. In its world premiere production at the California Shakespeare Theater, which opened Wednesday at the company’s Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, this “Lear” is set in San Francisco’s Fillmore District during the 1960s, a heyday for Black art, music and culture, but also a time when Black displacement was draining the lifeblood of neighborhoods throughout the region.

Lear’s (James A. Williams) descent into madness is artfully calibrated in Marcus Gardley’s new take on the Shakespeare tragedy, which he sets in San Francisco’s 1960s Fillmore District. (Photo courtesy Kevin Berne)

Gardley, an Obie-winning playwright and an Oakland native, knows both the region and Shakespeare’s play, and what he’s created in this sprawling hybrid is nothing short of dazzling. This is “King Lear,” to be sure, but with a contemporary, eyes-wide-open point of view: Like in his earlier plays, including the widely acclaimed “black odyssey,” Gardley writes the way we talk, with a deep understanding of character, language and history that resonates throughout the production.

Beautifully co-directed by Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting and Aurora Theatre Company’s associate artistic director Dawn Monique Williams, the sprawling three-hour, fifteen-minute production is often hilarious and ultimately deeply moving. Presented in partnership with the Oakland Theater Project and Play On Shakespeare, it’s a final triumph for Ting, who has announced that he’s leaving the company to relocate to New York.

Ting and Williams bring the play to life on multiple playing areas across the Bruns stage and throughout the multilevel San Francisco house that is the central feature of Tanya Orellana’s set design (artfully illuminated by Scott Bolman); the action often spills off the stage, with actors moving through the audience for entrances and exits. The production is dynamically paced, and music plays an essential part, with one of the house’s upstairs rooms occupied by composer-bassist Marcus Shelby and trombonist Scott Larson; their solos and duets supply the performance with a steady pulse.

Gardley’s script, like Shakespeare’s, is both humane and deeply poetic, and the Cal Shakes cast embodies it with thrilling intensity. This “Lear” is strongest where it counts, with James A. Williams in the title role of the imperious patriarch. Williams plays the part with power, intelligence and emotional clarity; he’s always attuned to the grasping machinations of the rapacious characters around him, and his command of Shakespeare’s language is complete. One word, a look or a single long breath from this actor expresses a lifetime, and his descent into madness is artfully calibrated.

In tune with Shelby’s music, the characters’ inner thoughts often come across like jazz riffs, with a winning mix of humor and menace expressed. Jomar Tagatac gives an intensely revealing performance as the evil Edmund, and Lear’s scheming daughters — Emma Van Lare’s Regan and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong’s Goneril — seethe with desire and murderous intent. Sam Jackson does a deft double-turn as Cordelia and Shakespeare’s Fool, here named the Comic. Dane Troy is an eloquent Edgar, and Cathleen Riddley is the picture of loyalty as Kent. Velina Brown, looking sensational in a long white gown (Lux Haac did the costumes) and perched above the main stage for much of the production, sings a series of soulful jazz tunes as the Black Queen. Michael J. Asberry’s Gloucester, Dov Hassan’s Cornwall and Kenny Scott’s Albany round out the cast.

Every “King Lear” examines ideas of identity, aging and legacy. But Gardley’s “Lear” takes Shakespeare’s themes one step further. In his adaptation, the play isn’t just about the title character’s sanity. It’s a meditation on the soul of a community.

Marcus Gardley’s “Lear” runs through Oct. 2 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets, $35-$80, are available at

Review by Georgia Rowe for the Bay City News Foundation.