“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” a drama about a Chicago teen who was killed in Mississippi for not adhering to racial codes, is loaded with meaning.
Penumbra Theatre should make tissues available to those who see its production of Ifa Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till.”
“Ballad,” which opened Thursday in St. Paul, is devastating.
The one-act play is a like a Greek tragedy in that the end is foretold.
The 14-year-old black Chicago boy, played with grace and lyricism by Darrick Mosley, is visiting relatives in Mississippi in August 1955. He is doomed because he does not know or believe the depth of America’s racial caste system. He’s a city boy with a stutter who overcomes it by whistling. He is sophisticated, he thinks, and these are simple folks. He has white friends back home. What harm can these white people in segregated Mississippi bring him?
This production, smoothly directed by Talvin Wilks, is surprisingly spirited. It flows fluidly, full of verve and levity.
Mosley plays one role, while the rest of the actors in the six-member ensemble take turns playing all the other characters. Greta Oglesby and T. Mychael Rambo, stars in their own right, deliver soulful songs arranged by Sanford Moore. Sha Cage, whose roles include Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, is a font of empathy and warmth. H. Adam Harris shows a hilarious side of his talent as he plays Ruthie May, a highly desired girl.
Mikell Sapp is excellent in a variety of roles, including as the silhouetted menace that is Roy Bryant during the scene where Emmett is tortured.
The designers of the lights (Marcus Dilliard), sound (Martin Gwinup), costumes (Mathew LeFebvre) and, especially, sets (Maruti Evans) all deserve praise. They make the whole thing, which takes place in an open space that is transformed into a vault, a jail-like shed, a car and something that resembles the hold of a ship, sing with history and meaning.
Bayeza has layered the text of “Ballad” with larger cultural and spiritual overtones. The play ends with the biblical line, “It is done,” which comes from a section in Revelation about judgment. Emmett’s life and death are as much about a boy as they are metaphors for the change that his death caused, as his mother sought to publicize the tragedy in the fight for civil rights and racial justice.
I half-expected to be depressed, going into the show. But I wasn’t at the end of the evening. That’s due in part to the fact that this play is not about death. It’s about life. It’s about a boisterous teen with a stutter and a Panama hat and new white shoes. Emmett likes girls and bubble gum. He likes to sing, even though they put him out of the choir. He will dance, if given a chance.
He just wants to live.