|“My life was short, but not uneventful.”
So begins the true story of one Emmett Till, a magnanimous fourteen-year-old with the gift of gab and a buoyant optimism that caused him to be the victim of hate, but whose murder sparked a call to action in the dawn of the civil rights movement.
The year was 1955—a time when race sharply divided a country into two unequal parts of equality and justice. In Argo, a small suburb outside of Chicago, whistling at a white woman or wearing a Panama hat might turn a few heads, but in the deep south of Mississippi, it could get a black man killed. For Emmett, race knew no bounds in his sheltered childhood with his mother and grandmother in Illinois. Using his charisma and mercurial wit to overcome his limp and slight stutter brought on by polio, Emmett’s personal strengths become a lethal liability when he spends the summer on his uncle’s plantation in the heart of Jim Crow country.
After its celebrated premiere at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, (garnering the 2008 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award), playwright Ifa Bayeza refitted the play, whittling the original cast of 13 to a mere five with all but the titled character playing various roles throughout. The result is a compact, moving tribute integrated with lyrical movement, superimposed speech, and stunning tableaus.
Ifa Bayeza and director Shirely Jo Finney skillfully avoid the trappings of an iconic martyr by creating a dynamic innocent whose unique perspective should not be so unique at all, but a march for a hero who dared to be nothing less than who he was. The majority of the play is an uplifting, comical biography of a young man who refused to let his spirit be broken, despite his hardships. Although, these lovable traits will be his ultimate undoing, the character of Emmett Till literally foreshadowing his own terrible conclusion, it’s impossible not to fall in love with Lorenz Arnell’s candid expressions and infectious exuberance. As he flirts with a young girl on a Ferris wheel, so too does Arnell flirt with the audience, treating us to mirthful sidelong glances and a boundless energy that sparkles and shines through.
Everything leading up to Emmett’s peacocking with a white shopkeeper is nothing short of excellent. From there, the tensions mounts, in a haze of unclear and generalized terror, effective in creating mood, but not altogether transparent are his transgressions and the explosive level of violence. We are left filling in the blanks, which may be exactly what Bayeza intended. There is no suitable answer to the why’s Emmett’s murder leaves us with except pure, unadulterated hate.
The light-hearted tone takes an ominous turn by a pair of headlights, eerily emitted from behind a scrim, following too closely behind Emmett and his relations down a dirt road. Bayeza interjects a tender scene with Emmett and his uncle as they fish and talk “man-to-man” about Emmett’s father who died at war when he was just a baby. It is the first but last scene to reveal fragility and self-doubt into Emmett’s character, a Leo by birth, and a source of pride by his own admission. This scene juxtaposes the horrific nightmare that comes to the family’s door in a stream of flashlights and patronizing threats, made good by Emmett’s uncle paralyzing inability to stop them from taking Emmett in a blinding seizure of recrimination.
These are the heart-stopping moments, the unspeakable torture recounted by his angry mother who demands her son’s casket remain open so the whole world can see what they did to him. The torture and execution of Emmett Till, however, becomes more spectacle than necessary. From behind a scrim, Arnell’s silhouette twitches with each striking blow, a pleading shadow puppet that begs for mercy with the same good humor that inflicted this savage targeting. As the trial of Emmett Till commences and his mother graphically describes the brutality that includes castration, missing teeth and empty eye sockets, the recreation of the crime continues to play out indulgently. The words echoed by his grandmother are powerful enough without resorting to literal overkill. While the manner is hauntingly evocative, it simply goes on too long, with what could’ve been more riveting testimony without the visual, disturbing interludes.
Nevertheless, the whole of this work is vital and dramatically moving. The ensemble delivers outstanding performances and swift, seamless turns with their distinct multiple characters. The use of bamboo sticks in the introduction and later, rainsticks to create ambiance provides haunting counterpoint to an already delightful vocal harmony.
The sparse set design by Scott Siedman of various suitcases and luggage offers interesting levels without distracting scene changes and subtly intimates Emmett’s journey into the unknown. Lighting design by Kathi O’Donohue evokes the sinister and emphasizes Ameenah Kaplan’s gorgeous choreography.
Tragically, this play opens with the sudden loss of Ben Bradley, a beloved member of the Fountain Theatre family whose passion and commitment to bringing new works to Los Angeles left an indelible mark to our community. Special commendation to Shirley Jo Finney and the Fountain Theatre members for seeing Bradley’s vision through with remarkable grace and sensitivity that defines his legacy as an artist and a devoted friend to the theatre.
“The Ballad of Emmett Till” faithfully recounts the brief, but important life of an unsung hero whose death fueled a cause towards justice, equality and inspired change for every American. To ignore the obvious parallel to the gospels is to ignore the obvious, but Bayeza charges the notable comparisons of a Christ-like figure with otherwise feeling restraint so that his resurrection before the audience leaves us with perhaps the most crucial element of all, hope. For Emmett Till, “it is done,” but for us, it is just the beginning.
“The Ballad of Emmett Till”
Runs through April 3
Thurs, Fri, and Sat at 8pm
Sundays at 2pm
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles, 90029