Tag Archives: Emmett Till

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.

The tragic life of Emmett Till demonstrates need for national change, 65 years after his death

by Terri Roberts

On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted from the home of his great uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, in the still-dark hours of a Mississippi morning. The two abductors were white; one of them carried a flashlight and a gun. Together, they forced the black teenager into the back of a pick-up truck and drove off. Three days later, Emmett’s naked, bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. He had been savagely beaten, shot in the head, and his face mutilated beyond recognition. A heavy, metal cotton gin fan had also been tied around his neck – with barbed wire.  

The boy’s body was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify him by the distinctive ring he was wearing. It was silver, square-shaped, and had belonged to Emmett’s deceased father. It was engraved with the initials L.T.: Louis Till.

This Friday, August 28, marks the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. His death, and its aftermath, are largely credited with sparking the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks had Emmett Till on her mind when she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger. She thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t do it.  

To honor him, and in recognition of all the challenges for racial equality that have followed from then till now, the original cast and director of the Fountain Theatre’s widely acclaimed, multiple award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza will reunite for a live-streamed reading of the play. This highly produced presentation, which includes music, sound, and visual imagery, will take place at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET and be available this year for on-demand viewing at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020. Pay-per-view tickets are $20.00. Shirley Jo Finney again directs Bernard K. AddisonRico EAndersonLorenz ArnellAdenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White, all reprising their original roles in Bayeza’s powerfully theatrical intermingling of history, mystery and legend, punctuated with music and poetry.

And on Thursday, August 27, Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs will chat with playwright Bayeza during his bi-monthly installment of Theatre Talk at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET. That conversation will air live on Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Fountain website at http://www.fountaintheatre.com.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had warned her son before he left their Chicago home that the Mississippi Delta was a whole different world than he was used to when it came to race relations. Segregation was a stricter practice down in the Delta. She worried that her fun-loving son, who was known for telling jokes and pulling pranks, and who used whistling to help control a stutter, could easily find himself in trouble in the unforgiving Jim Crowe south without realizing it.

She was right.

When Mamie was told of the terrible news, she insisted that the body of her only child – who she fondly called Bobo – be returned to Chicago. According to a January 11, 2003 article in The Washington Post following her death on January 6th, Mamie collapsed at the train station when she saw what was left of her son and cried out, “Lord, take my soul.”

Mamie became determined that her son would be seen, exactly as death left him. He would not disappear, like driftwood floating down the Tallahatchie River, to be remembered only by friends and family and then, finally, to be forgotten altogether. No, she wanted his killers, and indeed the whole world, to see what racial hatred, ignorance and bigotry was doing everyday, without regret, to black people everywhere, and what it had done to one particularly cherished life. A young black life that mattered.

“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till famously said. And they have, for 65 years. Today, a simple Google search easily pulls up a plethora of photos, articles, and books about the life and death of Emmett Till, including historian Elliot J. Gorn’s 2018 book, Let the People See, and Timothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till.

Till’s brutal death was already making headlines, and Mamie invited even more media to cover the funeral and the viewings, including the well-known black publication, Jet magazine (which created The Emmett Till Project to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of his death and the trail that followed.) She insisted on an open casket – albeit, one with a glass top because the stench from the decaying body in the Illinois summer sun was overwhelming. She invited the public to attend. And they did, by the thousands. The viewing of Emmett Till’s body went on for four days.

The photo of Mamie Till Mobley mourning over her son’s open coffin was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

From the same TWP article: “Thousands lined the streets outside the Chicago funeral home. Thousands more walked past the open casket. They wept. They wailed. They seethed.

Photographers snapped close-ups of a boy’s body so disfigured that the human eye instinctively turns away. Those hideous pictures galvanized a nation.

All but two of Bobo’s teeth were missing. His ear was gone, an eye detached, his face and body horribly swollen after 72 hours in the Tallahatchie River.

His crime? This young black boy from Chicago spending the summer with relatives didn’t really understand Jim Crow. To impress friends, it is alleged that he talked fresh or whistled at a married white woman in Money, Miss.

That’s all it took to end a life.

A couple of weeks later, a trial was held for 24-year old Roy Bryant and his half-brother, 36-year-old John William “J.W.” Milam, in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Bryant was the husband of Carolyn Byrant, the woman who had accused Till of “ugly remarks” and vague improprieties. The Bryant’s also owned the small store that Till and his friends had stopped at to buy some bubble gum. (The site of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market is now memorialized with a Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker.)

Mose Wright chose to appear at the trial. This short-statured black man stood tall that day in court when he pointed to his nephew’s accused white killers, Bryant and Milam, and positively identified them. Then, after less than an hour of deliberation, the all-white jury declared the men “not guilty.” The state, the jury claimed, had failed to prove the identity of the body. A separate kidnapping charge was also filed against the pair, but they never were indicted.

Both men eventually died of cancer: Milam in 1980 and Bryant in 1994. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant confessed to The Blood of Emmett Till author Timothy B. Tyson that the 14-year-old-boy from Chicago had never accosted her, or touched her, in any way. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.

In the more than five decades that have passed since August 28, 1955, thousands of other black men, women and children have needlessly died as the result of racial violence and divisiveness. They breathe no more, but the Civil Rights Movement continues. We march for the fallen, and we say their names: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And so many more.

They are remembered. As is Emmett Till.

Another Emmett Till Moment in Newtown?

“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.

"The Ballad of Emmett Till" (Fountain Theatre, 2011)

“The Ballad of Emmett Till” (Fountain Theatre, 2011)

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.

His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, asked for an open coffin for tens of thousands of mourners to view at his Chicago funeral. “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said.

“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

Noah Pozner

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.”

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

“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.