“I want the world to see what they did to my baby.”
History repeats itself, for better and worse. And certain plays, like historical events, resurrect with new relevance in our hearts and minds at specific moments in time in our lives.
In 2010 The Fountain Theatre produced the West Coast Premiere of The Ballad of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy whose 1955 murder helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Originally from Chicago, Till was visiting relatives in Mississippi where he was accused of flirting with a white female shopkeeper. A few nights later, the woman’s husband and a relative kidnapped Till. They beat him, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head and dropped him in the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was discovered three days later.
“There was just no way I could describe what was in that box,” she said at the time. “No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”
The photo was reproduced and Till’s death became a huge news story. Three months later, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and the civil rights movement took a leap forward.
Noah Pozner, 6, was one of the 20 child victims in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. All the dead were shot between three and 11 times. Tiny Noah took 11 bullets. His mother, Veronique, insisted on an open coffin, Naomi Zeveloff reported in the Jewish Daily Forward.
You’ll probably remember Noah. He was a happy little guy with beautiful heavily lashed eyes and a cheerful smile. In his coffin, there was a cloth placed over the lower part of his face.
“There was no mouth left,” his mother told the Forward. “His jaw was blown away.”
She put a stone in his right hand, a “clear plastic rock with a white angel inside.” She wanted to put a matching stone in his left hand but he had no left hand to speak of.
Parents of the dead children were advised to identify them from photographs, such was the carnage. But every parent reacts differently. Veronique Pozner did the most difficult thing. She asked to see the body.
“I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.”
She insisted on an open coffin. When the governor of Connecticut arrived, she brought him to see Noah in the open casket. “I needed it to be real for him.” The governor wept.
Veronique Pozner said: “I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized.”
“This really reminds me of what Emmett Till’s mother did,” wrote one Reddit user. “I think people often separate themselves from things they don’t want to realize, but it’s important in gaining support for preventative action.”
In these cases, we see the difference between “telling” and “showing,” an old concept in playwriting. Playwrights can “show” events and let the audience draw their own conclusions or they can have characters “tell” the audience the plot as it unfolds.
In a blog post for the American Counseling Association, Patricia Myers wrote, “In reading of Veronique’s strength I was reminded of Mamie Mobley, another mother who buried her son… The world reeled at the picture of young Emmett Till and the resulting outrage provided a spark to the Civil Rights movement. We need that spark now at the death of Noah, Jack, Rachel, Emilie and 22 others (numbers for just this killing and not for any of the 11 others that have occurred in the last 2 years or the month since). We must make this, and every other death by guns, mean something or we truly are, and will remain, severely impoverished as a nation.”
Perhaps the impetus of the Newtown tragedy will lead to change in the way our country deals with guns and violence.
History tells us that Mamie Till Mobley’s bravery changed America irrevocably for the better.
Will Veronique Pozner’s bravery come close to being Newtown’s ‘Emmett Till moment’? Only time will tell.