Groundbreaking livestream ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ is artistic and financial success for Fountain Theatre

By Terri Roberts

Friday, August 28th, marked the 65th anniversary of the vicious murder of an innocent 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till. His cold-blooded, colder-hearted killing, and the events surrounding and following his funeral, became the kick-starter events of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in 1955. The Fountain Theatre recognized that landmark anniversary in two ways: with the reunion of the original director and cast of our award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till, by poetic playwright Ifa Bayeza, and by navigating this new COVID-19 world of virtual theatre by presenting the show in a unique, forward-thinking beyond-the-Zoom-Room format.

Three hundred and forty-eight people bought $20 tickets for the livestream premiere of this re-imagined digital model of theatre. The five actors – Bernard K. Addison, Rico Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo, and Karen Malina White – performed from their own individual, safely distanced locations, and coordinated with director Shirley Jo Finney and each other via Zoom on their computer screens. But gone was the normally pedestrian cyberscape of living room stages with bookcase backdrops. This fresh digital production of Emmett Till was dramatically enhanced with the use of props, costumes, music, sound, visual effects and cinematic techniques. The resulting hybrid of stage and digital filmmaking made for an exciting and invigorating step forward into the new frontier of virtual theatre.

If you were not able to catch the premiere, you needn’t worry. The livestream premiere was video recorded. The Ballad of Emmett Till is available for a pay-per-view rental of $20 at www.fountaintheatre.com until December 1st.

“What a stunning presentation!” wrote playwright Bayeza after Friday’s premiere. “The commitment and creative investment so enlivened the digital performance, introducing whole new dimensions and possibilities.Shirley Jo, the way you angled the car scenes, Emmett’s dancing in the water, the integration of sound and environments–all were exquisite surprises. The ensemble was marvelous again. Karen’s magical shifts of character are so seamless, you don’t even notice it’s the same actor! All in all, simply superb!”

Other viewers agreed:

“Shirley Jo Finney exceeded the medium and brought new meaning to each of the characters. Bravo! Bravo!” – Steven Williams

“Thank you for such an AMAZING virtual presentation! It was PHENOMENAL!!!! BRAVO!!!” – Cynthia Kitt

“Wonderful work in this crazy world!” – Taylor Bryce.

“Powerful production!” – Shawn Kennedy

“I was initially a bit cautious about watching on my computer but the direction drew me right in. I loved the use of photos and other visuals to create a sense of place. And the acting was superb. Very moving.” – Lois Fishman

“It was very powerful and beautifully done. The cast was amazing. Please convey my appreciation to all of them as well as to Shirley Jo Finney for the beautiful direction.” – Diana Buckhantz

“I’m so proud of what we created,” said Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “I’m thrilled that the Fountain is leading the way in developing new ways to tell stories and keep the connection with our community alive.” The pay-per-view event is a budgetary victory as well. Online ticket sales and generous contributions from longtime Fountain donors Susan Stockel and Barbara Herman ensured that Emmett Till was fully funded by its first airing.  

The success of Emmett Till hashttps://www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020 demonstrated that this form of digital theatre is both viable and profitable, and can help the Fountain keep its doors metaphorically open while we are still in pandemic mode. And while we will certainly continue to present free digital content via the bi-monthly installments of Saturday Matinees and Theatre Talk, as well as other programming and readings as they present themselves, you can also expect to see more livestream/digital pay-per-view productions to come.

Is there something special you would like to see in this new format? A past Fountain production with a small cast you think should be rebooted? We’d love to know what you’d love to see. Email me at terri@fountaintheatre.com and share your thoughts.

Until then, The Ballad of Emmett Till is waiting for you.

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