Before Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Philando Castile — African-Americans whose deaths sparked protests and generated hashtags — there was Emmett Till. Long before the social media age, Till’s killing helped ignite the civil rights movement and continues to inspire artists today.
In the summer of 1955, Till, a boisterous 14-year-old from Chicago, was visiting relatives in Money, Miss., when he was lynched for allegedly touching a white store clerk’s hand and wolf-whistling at her. The brutality of his killing may never have been known — he was tortured, shot and dumped in a river, his body weighted down by a cotton-gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire — except that his mother opted for an open casket at the funeral.
Jet magazine published a funerary photograph of Till’s body, his face mutilated and swollen beyond comprehension. That disturbing image was seen by millions of people, including a young Ifa Bayeza, who grew up to become a successful Harvard-educated playwright.
The photo frightened and traumatized Bayeza — she saw the republished image in 1965, when she was around Till’s age. But she couldn’t fully process her emotions until late adulthood, she said. That’s when she decided to research Till’s killing and write a trilogy about the boy in whom she recognized glimmers of herself.
“We were both fair-skinned African-Americans with hazel eyes, so I could identify with him on a really personal level,” Bayeza said. “He exudes this warmth from the [non-death] photographs.”
The first play of the trilogy, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2008 and received a spirited 2014 staging at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre by director Talvin Wilks. Wilks also helms the world premiere of “Benevolence,” the last of the trilogy but the second play to come to the stage when it opens Thursday at Penumbra.
“In ‘The Ballad,’ Ifa focused on Emmett as a vibrant adolescent, so that we’re not trapped in the idea of Emmett as an eternal victim,” Wilks said. “In ‘Benevolence,’ she’s indicting the culture and world where this type of monstrous violence can happen as part of daily practice. And she’s asking us, what do we do with history like this, especially when it keeps recurring.”
Couples in the aftermath
If “Ballad” was about humanizing Till, “Benevolence” is about showing the impact and devastation wrought by racial violence. With characters based on real people, the new play takes us inside the daily lives of two couples as they try to carry on in the aftermath of Till’s killing. But the story that’s told, based on research using court transcripts, FBI reports and interviews conducted by the playwright, is one of “conjecture,” said Bayeza, a brilliant writer in her own right, though her older sister, the late Ntozake Shange, is better known.
Carolyn and Roy Bryant, the white couple, are pivotal figures in Till’s death. An adult store clerk, she’s the one who accused the 14-year-old Chicagoan of flirting while she worked at the family’s convenience store. Her husband, shrimp-boat worker Roy, joined with his half-brother, J.W. Milam, in killing Till. Both were acquitted at trial, protecting them from any legal consequences when they later confessed to the killing.
Beulah and Clinton Melton, the black couple, were ordinary folks who became little-known civil rights martyrs in the wake of the acquittals. Clinton, a father of four who worked as an auto mechanic and gas station attendant, was shot dead on Dec. 3, 1955, by Elmer Kimbell, a friend of Milam’s. Less than three weeks later, Beulah, a churchgoing seamstress, was run off the road while driving her children. She drowned in a bayou, leaving their children orphaned.
“The play is an attempt to answer the question of what do we do with this history,” Bayeza said. “We have so much of it, and we’ve never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like they had in South Africa. We don’t really deal with it, but there’s a tradition in the African-American community of forgiveness, for our own health.”
In 2007, a historian published a book claiming Carolyn Bryant Donham had confessed to lying about the case. Last July, the Justice Department notified Congress that it had reopened the case, 63 years later.
Playwright Bayeza does not deal with the later history, including Bryant’s confession.
“Carolyn Bryant’s admission that she lied — that was obvious to me from the beginning,” Bayeza said. “That’s the reason I wrote ‘Benevolence.’ I think it’s much more interesting to postulate how this story of hers, the lying, came into being.”
Invoking the Scottsboro Boys and the Central Park Five, Bayeza said that lies like Bryant’s have a peculiar power to destroy black lives and communities. But beyond ugly racial history, the play lands amid a moment of uncertainty about the very idea of definitive truth.
“We’re in a weird period of history where public fabrication is on such an upswing,” Bayeza said. “I fear there’s a permanent damage to our notion of truth — the idea that one can get to a truth that is sure, that truth can be verified, agreed upon and accepted.”
But there’s the unquestionable fact of that photo from Till’s funeral, which so disturbed Bayeza as a child. She still carries it like a wound, though it’s not as raw as it once was. Bayeza looks back with wonder and introspection at her formative years in New Jersey, at the impact that Till’s death had on her young self.
“You have to understand I was a very sensitive child,” she said. “I experienced the death of a classmate at 9, and took myself to the funeral not knowing any of the rituals. I followed people up the aisle of the church, not knowing that it was for a viewing for this child who had drowned, and you could still see the furrows of pain on his brow.”
That personal experience, plus ones from the larger culture — including the bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, and the violence as kids integrated schools — made Bayeza and her siblings feel “acutely vulnerable.”
“We were on the front lines of integrating schools and we were living in this moment that showed the perilousness of black life,” Bayeza said. “Emmett is a symbol of that perilousness. His death is also something we have to grapple with” lest his funeral picture becomes a mirror, and we become as distorted as his tortured face.
That’s not the image, or the notion, that Bayeza wants to leave.
“We have to do something with this history, and not just repeat it,” she said. “It’s not going away.”