In Money, Mississippi 55 years ago, a 14-year-old African American boy is said to have whistled at a white woman. In the South, that action carried severe consequences. Assailants beat the young man, shot him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. They tied a heavy cotton gin fan to his body with barbed wire. Three days later, two fishermen retrieved the remains of Emmett Till.
This weekend, "The Ballad of Emmett Till" opens at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, barely six weeks after a man shot and killed the theater's director, Ben Bradley.
Director Shirley Jo Finney stepped in two days after Bradley’s death. Finney shared an experience she had with one audience member. "One woman came out of the first preview and said, 'You know, I don’t like going to these types of plays because when I come out, I’m enraged, and I want to hurt someone. But I don’t want to hurt anyone. I realize this is a celebration of life, what I went through was to treasure each moment in life, so it was a testament to the living, laughing, dying, and crying that we go through in celebrating Emmett because he is a hero. He was the spark. He was the life, the child being in all of us.'"
Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, decided upon an open-casket funeral service so the world would see her son as he was found in the river. A photograph ran in Jet magazine and circulated among newspapers and magazines around the world. Playwright Ifa Bayeza discovered in her research that the outcry was as loud in other countries as it was in Mississippi.
"If you look at Emmett’s story, not as a civil rights story along, but as a human rights story, it takes that idea of imperiled youth into a broader conversation," said Bayeza. "Emmett is not just an icon in the civil rights movement, he represents disenfranchised youth throughout the globe. And this peril that he faced in 1955 is as perilous for a youth of color in the United States or the streets of Baghdad or the streets of South Africa, it’s as perilous today."
I asked director Shirley Jo Finney why she believed the Emmett Till story had to be told again to contemporary audiences. She said she believes that technology and other factors force young people to grow up too fast.
"We are fractured, splintered souls," said Finney. "And it’s important because we’re so apart that we’re forgetting our own humanity, and I think it’s really important that it be told again and be told differently, not as a tragedy, but the point of view that you have to go in and ask, 'What is my responsibility in this?'"
Fountain Theatre’s late director, Ben Bradley, surprised Ifa Bayeza last summer with an invitation to mount the show much earlier than she’d expected. The opening of this production coincides with Black History Month.
"I’ll take any date that they offer me," said Bayeza, laughing. "Ben so wanted to do this work. His passion really moved the thing forward in December, and it feels like an appropriate tribute that we are bringing it to light now so soon after his passing as a thank you, as a blessing he bestowed on us."
"The Ballad of Emmett Till" opens this weekend at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and continues through April 3.