As the nation has witnessed the deaths of black men and in some cases women, at the hand of law enforcement, the death in Emmitt Till is involuntarily invoked whether most people know who Emmitt Till is.
Emmitt was a 14-year negro teen who allegedly flirted or sexually whistled at a 21-year old Carolyn Bryant, a white married woman who was the co-proprietor of a small store in Money, Mississippi. It is said that Bryant’s husband Roy, along with his half-brother J.W. Milam entered the Till relative’s home and took him away to a nearby barn, where they beat and tortured him prior to shooting him in the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River outfitted with a 70-pound cotton gin fan that was tied around his neck with wire. His body was discovered three days later from the river by a bystander and subsequently identified by his mother and family members after being shipped to Chicago in a set of boxes sent to a funeral home.
The current production of ‘The Death of Emmitt Till,’ being staged at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center touches on many of the issues of contemporary cases of racial violence, albeit law enforcement didn’t play a prominent role in this historical incident as has been documented in cases of lynching and murder of innocent blacks.
While certain acting performances were outstanding by several cast members, the production as a whole failed to capture the essence of this seminal event in black civil rights history.
Written by the late Mamie Till-Mobley and David Barr III, and directed by Ruth Cantrell with a sizable cast, this production attempted to provide pertinent facts surrounding the Emmitt Till case with poor and misguided presentation of the events leading up to the death of Till during the first act which threatened to derail the production.
Problematic to this production was the use of the space. While it has potential to tell a variety of stories and has done so successfully, the Bishop Arts Theatre space couldn’t adequately tell this period piece in a manner this story deserved.
While minimal set design work in some productions, partially open curtains and actors delivering lines against blank canvas of drawn curtains did little in terms of consummate storytelling and felt choppy, albeit an efficient use of time related to scene transitions. Also, projected images seem ‘cartoonish’ and didn’t undermine the work being presented by the actors.
In Act One, the play opens with a STRONG mantra, “Shame, Shame, SHAME IN MISSISSIPPI!” Sitting in that space, there is an expectation that a visceral and magical experience surrounding this space is going to take place.
We find Mamie Till, played convincingly by Sherry Hurnes, contemplating whether to send Emmitt from Chicago to Mississippi, who clearly articulates the challenge facing her family with the definitive statement to Emmitt, “If you’re in a room with a white person, you just drop your head, even if it don’t make sense…they kill niggers in Mississippi” as she is conflicted whether to send her son to Mississippi.
J.R. Bradford, the clear standout performer in this production in one of his many roles as the young man’s uncle Mose Wright, is phenomenal in his opening speech, convincing why Mamie should get over her fears of allowing a young Emmitt to travel to this ‘forbidden land.’
With the exception of Bradford’s performance, along with Justus L. Clark, who plays Emmitt Till with such conviction and youthful authenticity, and Albert Wash II, portraying his cousin Maurice in an exchange of pre-pubescent energy in one scene, the first act falls flat despite the horrific circumstances leading to Emmitt’s untimely death.
Portrayals by some of the adult performers came off as ‘amateurish,’ more like a Latin telenovela or an urban touring production than an important part of American history. Wracked with unbelievable melodramatic displays of genuine human emotion surrounding the disappearance and eventual discovery of Till’s body, with his head attached to a cotton gill mill piece, this did more to undermine the actual circumstances all the individuals involved must have felt upon moving through and learning that Till had been savagely murdered at the hands of a racist south.
The noticeable absence of the grotesque image of Till’s photo, as displayed in Jet Magazine, was also a challenge for audiences to truly connect with the heinous nature of this crime.
An exception to the inadequate performances in this act was the portrayal of the NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, played superbly by Jarret Goer. In the black community, there is a sentiment present that this civil rights organization was operating more so for position and legitimacy than actually working on behalf of the immediate needs of the black community. Goer plays this dichotomy excellently, a divide that still exists to this day as the organization seeks to posture itself as legitimate for 21st Century black concerns and parity.
In the 2nd Act, the production picks up steam and truly MOVES in the true spirit of this horrific act through a well-directed and acted courtroom scene. Bradford, Hurnes, and Khalil Donavan as Willie Reed, deliver back-to-back courtroom testimony that LITERALLY has you on the edge of your seats and transports the viewer back to 195X as the action plays out.
With excellent performances by D.R. Mann Hanson as the judge, and Paul William Engle and Steve Frawley as the defense and prosecution attorneys, respectively, you get a sense of racial life circa 1955 and what it must have felt like for white and black spectators alike sitting in the courtroom, each trying to assert their way of life in the deep south.
Despite the production challenges of the first act, this play is strongly recommended for diverse young audiences who are disconnected from this piece of American history, as well as older individuals who have forgotten or simply don’t know this story. Sitting there in the audience as the curtain closes, you can’t help but think this old adage: ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same.’
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Remaining performances occurring at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, 215 S. Tyler Street
Dallas, TX 75208. All seats $18 in advance, $22 at the door (plus service fee), General Admission Seating. Call the box office at (214) 948-0716 for group rates. All sales final. No refunds or exchanges.