I have written a trio of plays called The Till Trilogy—to try to do justice to what I consider a major myth of modern America. If, as WEB DuBois stated, the problem of the 20th century was the color line, Emmett Till stood at the crossroads, and stands there still.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is an ensemble play for six Black actors, exploring of the final days in the life of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager who takes a fateful trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1955. Till’s murder and his mother’s subsequent decision to have an open-casket funeral are believed by many to mark the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Ballad is a contemporary telling of Emmett’s story, a jazz integration of past and present, the events as seen from the perspective of the youth, himself. It is the story of a quest, Emmett’s pursuit of happiness, of liberty and ultimately of life.
In That Summer in Sumner, we are introduced to an integrated story and cast and thus a faint stirring of possibility, and yet the pall of the nation’s historic compact with the injustice of enslavement shrouds every choice and move. While Brown vs. the Board of Education suggests the promise of a new America, a Confederate statue looms over courthouse in Sumner. In this tiny Mississippi hamlet, where two white men are on trial for the murder of a black boy, a team of reporters scramble to uncover the truth and to get justice, but they are in for far more than they bargained for.
Benevolence explores the transformation in the Mississippi Delta in the wake of Emmett’s death, the toll of the legacy of human bondage on the smallest units of our society, the family and the individual. Seen from the eyes of two women and the men in their lives, it is an intimate play, a tale of love and loss and desire. It, too, is a quest … for redemption.
While there is not space enough in the print program to name the countless people who have aided me on this journey. I wish, especially, to thank Emmett’s extended family, all of whom have been most generous with their time, their memories and insight. In Argo, Pastor Wheeler Parker, Jr., Elder Simeon Wright, childhood friends John Goodwin and Turner Goodwin: their wonderful stories, helped me to see Emmett in life. I also thank Heluise Woods for saving her fifty-year old letter from “Bobo.”
Please, when you have a moment, peruse the digital program notes for a fuller acknowledgement of the scholars, artists, institutions and individuals who contributed to my realization of the work. I am indebted and grateful to each and every one of you.
First and last – to Mamie Till-Mobley and to her son Emmett Louis Till, “Bobo,” whose courage and faith continue to inform, enlighten and inspire, words cannot say… The world owes you its debt, and I am but a dweller upon it. I thank you for the privilege of walking with you a ways.
While based on actual events and drawn from historic research, The Till Trilogy is an imagined, speculative exploration of a story that in many ways remains a mystery. For dramatic exigency, some characters have been composited, some are fictional and events and times have been condensed.
First and last – to Mamie Till-Mobley and to her son Emmett Louis Till, whose courage and faith continue to inform, enlighten and inspire, words cannot say… The world owes you its debt, and I am but a dweller upon it. I thank you for the privilege of walking with you a ways.
I am especially indebted to the African American press, including the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Ebony and Johnson Publications Jet and Ebony moagazines, for their definitive and comprehensive coverage of Emmett Till’s murder. I began my research here, but it was only the beginning.
While I researched numerous primary resources—news articles, letters, film and photographic archival material—I created this narrative primarily from the first-hand accounts. I wish to thank Emmett’s extended family, all of whom have been most generous with their time, their memories and insight. In Argo, Pastor Wheeler Parker, Jr., Elder Simeon Wright, childhood friends John Goodwin and Turner Goodwin: their wonderful stories, helped me to see Emmett in life. I also thank Heluise Woods for saving her fifty-year old letter from “Bobo.”
In Chicago, Anita Cochran led me to Emmett’s eighth-grade classmates Carole Adkins, Richard Heard, Millicent Conley, James Van Hoose, Barbara Barry, and James Willis, as well as Emmett’s seventh grade teacher Mr. Spears. My appreciation also goes to numerous individuals for sharing experiences of growing up in the fifties. These include Prof. Paul Carter Harrison, Emmons Wallace, Pastor Herbert Martin, Jr., Dr. Victor Leo Walker II and Mary Johnson. Noted scholars Charles Payne, Adam Green and Drs. Linda and David Beito, as well as Davis Houck, deeply enriched my understanding of the Civil Rights Era. To this list of generous souls, who were kind enough to share memories and insights with me, I must add the Mississippi accounts of Mayor Johnny Thomas, Leesha Faulkner, Alison Kelly, C. Aven Whittington, III, and Laura Lee Wallace.
I am eternally grateful to Myrna Colley-Lee and Morgan Freeman for their hospitality and to the of the SonEdna Foundation for sanctuary during my weeks of Mississippi research. I also thank Elmo Terry-Morgan and Karen Allen-Baxter of Rites and Reason Theatre, the arts component of the Africana Studies Department of Brown University and President Ruth Simmons, along with Donald King and Providence Black Repertory Company, for providing the fellowship that made much of my initial research and play development possible.
Special acknowledgement also to the late Marsha Z. West, resident director of Rites and Reason Theatre in Providence, for her staging of the first full reading of Till. I am honored that Jane Saks and Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in Arts and Media at Columbia College awarded me the inaugural fellowship for women playwrights of color.
Many creative colleagues helped me along the way with good counsel and red pencils. These include Sue Lawless and Lorna Littleway at the Juneteenth Festival of New Plays in Louisville; John Wesley and Ben Bradley at Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, and Nena St. Louis in a world of her own. I wish to especially thank director Clinton Turner Davis for his scholarly and directorial
assistance in early readings of the work, Kate Whoriskey for a wonderfully inventive O’Neill Playwrights Conference experience and director/dramaturg Anna Bahow for her faith in the play and in me.
The entire Goodman Theatre staff was superbly supportive of the world premiere of The Ballad of Emmett Till in 2008. Special thanks to Executive Director Roche Schulfer, Artistic Director Bob Falls, General Manager Kathy Murphy and Literary Manager Tanya Palmer. I will be eternally grateful to Peter Bynoe, a trustee at the Goodman and life-long friend, for bringing my work to the theatre’s attention. Since we first met on the steps of Cabot Hall, Peter has been a colleague and constant supporter. Likewise director Oz Scott from our very early days on the Lower East Side of New York. The Goodman marked our first production collaboration since for colored girls. It took far too long.
My thanks also to The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles for providing the play with its second home and giving me the opportunity to shape the work into the lean and intense ensemble that it is today. Particular appreciation for the sharp eye of director Shirley Jo Finney and the dramaturgical suggestions of Simon Levy.
At the time of his death, January 1, 2010, Fountain Theatre associate producer Ben Bradley was working on my play. Ben was so very excited about this production. I take solace with the thought that he seemed at the height of his joy. He was in the moment, completely absorbed, possessed with a sense of unlimited possibility. Like Emmett, the play’s young protagonist, Ben was breathing the essence of freedom, the greatest joy coming perhaps in the pursuit of happiness even more than in its capture. I ponder now his urgency, yet I am so grateful for it.
Thanks also to Eileen Morris, Artistic Director of Ensemble Theatre of Houston, for bringing The Ballad of Emmett Till to the first Black Theatre and the first venue in the South, and then onto the National Black Theatre Festival.
My gratitude also to Saah Bellamy, Artistic Director of Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, for not only producing The Ballad, but embracing my vision for The Till Trilogy, by being the first theatre to produce Benevolence and bringing me together with the brilliant Talvin Wilks.
To my colleagues at University of Massachusetts Amherst – midwives, mentors and students – Professors Priscilla Page, Harley Erdman, Chris Baker, Megan Lewis and Judyie Al-Bilali, Gina Kaufman and Gilbert in the Theater Department and then Chair of African American Studies Department John Bracey. Particular shout-out to John form bringing Sonia Sanchez as respondent to my first reading of Benevolence. Also, to Christine Hicks, Ryan Jacobucci, Jude Sandy and Mia Ellis as that first cast, who showed me we had a play!
I am indebted to the MacDowell Colony for providing me with a vital residency in the spring of 2022. I see why the place is magical.
My gratitude also to my implacable agent Susan Gurman, always the wind at my back.
To Mosaic Theatre’s new Artistic Director Reginald Douglas for embracing The Till Trilogy as the flagship of his first season, and to Mosaic Theater’s former artistic director, Ari Roth, who first said, “Yes!” My gratitude also to my implacable agent Susan Gurman, always the wind at my back.
This work is about family. I would be nothing without my own – my incredible sisters Bisa and Ntozake and my stalwart brother Paul, my calming Zen niece Savannah and my late and forever great parents Paul T. and Eloise O. Williams. I dedicate this work to the memory of my mother, to the end, my mentor and muse.