Tag Archives: Mamie Till Mobely

In gratitude for the Fountain Theatre’s VOD presentation of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’

Stream Ends December 1st

by Terri Roberts

It’s Thanksgiving week, a time to reflect on that for which we are grateful. And even within the insanity of a year that brought us a global pandemic, extreme racial unrest, and a surreal presidential election, there were still rays of light. Here at the Fountain Theatre, one of our great joys came in the form of creating a stage/screen hybrid video adaptation of Ifa Bayeza’s stunning play, The Ballad of Emmett Till. If you have not seen it, there is still time. But the streaming of this acclaimed video-on-demand production ends on December 1st, so don’t delay. Tickets are just $20 and are available here.

The Ballad of Emmett Till is a lyrical retelling of the true events that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and blends history, mystery and legend with accents of music and poetry. The Fountain’s widely heralded, multiple award-winning 2010 west coast premiere was helmed by Shirley Jo Finney, and starred the impeccable ensemble of Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White. Actors and director reunited over the summer to create this unique VOD version of our original stage production, which is enhanced by the use of music, sound, visual imagery and various film techniques. It debuted on August 28th, which marked the 65-year anniversary of Till’s brutal murder. His death had not only become a rallying cry for the times, but it has continued to resonate, and activate civic action, across the decades that followed.

Emmett Till was a charming, precocious 14-year-old boy who lived in Chicago with his mother, Mamie. In August 1955, he traveled down south to the Mississippi Delta to visit his uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, and other family members. One sunny day he and his cousins and a few friends went into town, and the young teenager stopped at a local market to buy some sweets. Accounts differ as to what actually happened to provoke the tragedy that followed, but it is widely believed that Till, who used whistling to help control a lifelong stutter, innocently whistled at the white, married, female store clerk.

As a result, Till was later kidnapped from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. The men took the boy down to the Tallahatchie River and forced him to strip. Then they beat him, shot him in the head, and weighted his body down with a heavy metal cotton gin fan that they wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Three days later, the boy’s naked, bloated body was discovered floating in the river.

Mamie insisted that her only child’s grotesquely disfigured body be returned to her in Chicago, untouched. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously said, and insisted on an open casket with a glass shield to contain the stench of her son’s decomposing corpse. The media had started carrying the news of the murder, and Mamie encouraged even more attention by publically displaying the body. Mourners gathered around the clock to pay their respects. The viewing went on for four days.

It might sound odd, during this week of focused gratitude, to suggest taking these final days of opportunity to view the Fountain’s VOD production of The Ballad of Emmett Till as part of our expressions of thankfulness. I feel it is not. The joyous way he lived his short life, contrasted with the ugliness of his premature death, led to a social rebellion that’s still being waged today. We entered the summer of 2020 with streets across America being crowded with marches born of unfettered rage against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the long-shadow history of Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, the nine men and women of the Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the hundreds more that came before them. Including, of course, Emmett Till.

The Ballad of Emmett Till is available through December 1st. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. I’m willing to bet you’ll be grateful you watched it.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

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.