Emmett Till’s death in Mississippi in August 1955 was a catalytic event for the civil rights movement. Ten years later, it had a big impact on a young woman who was unable to shake it until decades later when she wrote a play about it.
On a visit to the Delta region near Greenwood, the 14-year-old Chicago boy allegedly whistled at a white female shopkeeper. He later was taken out of the home where he was staying, tortured and shot.
Two white men were put on trial for his death. Both were acquitted, although one later described Till’s killing in detail to Look magazine.
Playwright, actor and director Ifa Bayeza was in high school in New Jersey in the mid-1960s when she first saw the photo of Till’s disfigured face in an article in Jet magazine. The image was released with the consent of Till’s activist mother.
“It was such a gruesome and horrific portrait of torture,” Bayeza said. “And it contrasts with the beauty and life you see in him in his natural portrait. To this day, I feel tremendous pain when I look at” the corpse picture.
The image, and what it represents, stayed with Bayeza. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in English. When she took a job in Chicago in the mid-1990s, she began to write a play that she hoped would help to take her pain away, even as it replaced, in her memory, the image of Till.
That work, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” opens Thursday at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
It is a drama of healing, Bayeza said.
“People know Emmett Till from the death pictures, but I wanted to show him alive,” she said. “He’s a heroic boy, smart, with a sense of style. He had a stutter, but that wasn’t a handicap. He had tremendous promise.”
The play, which is more a dreamy, coming-of-age work than a piece of poetic realism, is being staged by New York-based director Talvin Wilks. He has worked with Bayeza before.
“It’s a tragic play, but it’s not a tragedy,” Wilks said. “It’s a ritual celebration of his life, not his death. Emmett was a jokester. He had a well-developed sense of humor and the play reflects that. People will be surprised that the play has so many laughs.”
Refining the story
“Ballad” premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2008, directed by Oz Scott. That version, with a cast of 13, earned mixed reviews. Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times found it “riveting” while Chris Jones at the Tribune found it unfocused.
Bayeza continued to work on “Ballad” after it closed. She streamlined the story and cut characters, down to as few as five. The changes have clarified the work, which has received praise in productions. The Los Angeles Times called a staging of the new version there “devastating.” Another production in Houston was similarly well-received.
For Bayeza, writing, especially for the stage, was a calling she heard early. “I wrote my first play at 12,” she said.
It helped that she was well-nurtured in a distinguished family. Her father, Paul Towbin Williams, was a prominent doctor in Lawrence Township, N.J. Bayeza’s mother, Eloise Owens Williams, encouraged the creativity of her children, including noted playwright Ntozake Shange, who set the theater world on a new pivot with “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Bayeza is big sister to Bisa Williams, who has served as U.S. ambassador to Niger, and Paul T. Williams Jr., who heads a New York state development agency.
Bayeza co-authored a novel, “Some Sing, Some Cry,” with Shange. She has written other works, including a hip-hop musical that teaches math to children. But few of her pieces are as personal as “Ballad.” Perhaps she identified so deeply with Till, whom his friends called Bobo, because, she said, “we both have hazel eyes and both come from activist families.”
She also sees Till’s fate as inextricably tied up with both the racial history of the nation and where we are today.
“From slavery to Trayvon Martin, the issues remain constant,” she said. “Black boys are being killed today at an alarming rate. It’s a national crisis, but it’s not treated as such. When Emmett Till was murdered, one life mattered.”
Some of Till’s relatives live in the Twin Cities, including Deborah Watts, co-founder of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation.
Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director of Penumbra, said that the play is a reminder not just of history, but of a time when ordinary people helped change the moral fiber of the country.
“We wanted to draw the connective tissue between one shooting that galvanized a nation and those that continue to happen,” she said. “Ballad” will be followed by Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop,” which imagines the last night of the life of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
These plays in Penumbra’s season are “about how everyday people can change the course of history,” said Bellamy. “They are about having courage to face and conquer fear.”