In August 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till didn’t do anything wrong.
While visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi, he spoke to a young white married woman at a small grocery store. Several nights later, the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half brother, J.W. Milam, took Emmett from his relative’s home to a small barn where they beat him and gouged out an eye before shooting the boy. After all of that, Emmett’s body was dumped into the Tallahatchie River, weighed down with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with a barbed wire.
The body, mutilated and disfigured, was discovered three days later and sent home to Emmett’s mother in Chicago. She was overcome with grief, but also outraged at what had happened to her son. To make sure that her son did not die in vain, she requested that he have an open casket funeral so that the world could see what injustice had been done to a young African American boy while visiting Mississippi.
Emmett Till’s story has resonated with those seeking social justice for 60 years.
Emmett’s story has been immortalized in countless history textbooks, documentaries and magazines, but perhaps one of the most poignant and thought-provoking adaptations is Chicago author Ifa Bayeza’s 2008 musical The Ballad of Emmett Till, which is being presented by Renaissance Theaterworks as the first production of its 2015–16 season.
“Every year, our company tries to do shows that examine the complexities of the human heart,” said Renaissance artistic director Suzan Fete in a recent email interview. “This season, we have chosen three shows based on real events, true stories about ordinary heroes. We were shocked at how few people know about Till’s story as it is an essential part of history.”
The musical tells Emmett’s story from his perspective, haunting and tragic as it is. A single actor, Marques Causey, plays Emmett, known as Bo to his friends. The other five actors on stage, three men and two women, play Emmett’s family, friends and his killers.
Fete says the poignancy of this show comes from the fact that Emmett, a boy of 14, is telling much of the story on his own. “The story begins very joyful, and then takes a turn. It’s very powerful. Playwright Ifa Bayeza uses contemporary prose, jazz and gospel music when telling his story. It really grabs the audience,” Fete adds.
To keep the audience focused on the performance, director Marti Gobel decided to keep her set intentionally sparse. “This show is about the actors telling a story. We don’t want it to get bogged down by over-teching it,” she said in a recent email interview.
The show will feature a three-piece band, with a blues guitarist, harmonica player and percussionist tapped to support the performers. Gobel says the show borrows from numerous styles including jazz, doo-wop and even some Delta blues.
In addition to the performance itself, Renaissance Theaterworks is offering informal talkbacks after several of the shows. The company also has partnered with Milwaukee Public Library to offer a workshop and tickets to select at-risk youth reading groups. In addition, they have partnered with PEARLS for Teen Girls, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting teen girls of color in Milwaukee, to offer a workshop in conjunction with a private performance for 70 girls.
Gobel’s goals for the production can be summed up simply: “I hope that people leave with a desire to make sure our country never falls on such times and social philosophies again. I want us to take pride in how far we come, but be angry at what still needs to be changed.”
The Ballad of Emmett Till is a powerful story for all to see, and one that is not to be missed.
Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of The Ballad of Emmett Till runs Oct. 23-Nov. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets are $38, with student and senior discounts available and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or r-t-w.com.