The tragedy of Emmett Till didn’t end when he was murdered in 1955, and it had begun centuries earlier.
That’s the thesis of Ifa Bayeza’s searing drama “Benevolence,” which is getting its world premiere at Penumbra Theatre, the same venue that presented Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till” in 2014. “Benevolence,” part of a planned trilogy about the killing, sketches in some of the same events — a black teenager from Chicago visiting Mississippi is brutally beaten, then shot, after allegedly whistling at a white woman — but it’s more interested in the fallout of the crime. Its two (deliberately segregated) acts follow first a white couple and then a black couple whose lives are permanently changed by the tragedy.
Sara Marsh plays the accuser whose initial lie spirals out of her control, and, true to its title, “Benevolence” has a surprising amount of empathy for the trap that leaves her in. Actually, “Empathy” would be another good title for Bayeza’s play, which takes as a given that all of us are trapped in a class/race system that has been solidifying since the British sent what “White Trash” author Deborah Isenberg calls their “rubbish” to colonize this country.
Peter Christian Hansen plays various characters, including the accuser’s husband. Ranging from 1955 to the present, the scenes are free-associative and nonchronological, almost as if we are being allowed into the mind of someone who is trying to make sense of it all.
Maruti Evans’ handsome set — a shiplapped room with words stenciled on the walls and four vintage TVs — is distracting. But subtle clues in Bayeza’s text, and sharp choices by director Talvin Wilks and his team, help us track the chronology, as in a chilling moment when everything goes black while the accuser recalls her brief, fateful meeting with Till.
As “Benevolence” transitions to the second act, with Till’s murderers escaping justice, it’s impossible not to connect this crime to more recent killings of young black men such as Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin and wonder: Who, exactly, should be indicted? The killers? The system that created them? Do you go all the way back to the people who ripped Africans from their homes and sold them?
Bayeza uses humor and spirituality to lend a different tone to the second act, which Wilks emphasizes by adding music to the mix, as we meet Beulah Melton (Dame-Jasmine Hughes), whose husband, Clinton (Darrick Mosley), witnessed Till’s murder.
Bayeza’s play is not perfect — she has trouble ending both acts — but in contrast to its intimate, domestic settings, it achieves an epic scale in the second act, with characters whose simple attempt to live their lives is met with violence and tragedy.
All four actors are excellent, but Hughes has the showiest role, and if you are a Twin Cities theater fan who has not seen her perform, now’s the time to fix that. Her emotional nakedness is riveting, whether in a complex scene when Beulah must simultaneously comfort her distraught husband while cheerfully reassuring her tiny children, or in what is essentially a monologue where a woman attempts to maintain her composure while pouring out the grief, anger and frustration that are facts of life for a black woman in the United States. (An additional effect of Bayeza’s time-shifting is to make clear that what was true in 1955 remains true today.)
Beulah, more than any other character, gets how deep the roots of injustice go, and she expresses it when Clint tells her they must fight back, they must stand up, and she replies, shatteringly, “To WHAT?”