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. mosaictheater.org.

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.) mosaictheatre.org. $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.