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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.

How to join art and advocacy? Ask Jon Lawrence Rivera on Theatre Talk Wednesday July 22

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Jon Lawrence Rivera

Playwrights Arena Founding Artistic Director Jon Lawrence Rivera joins Stephen Sachs on Theatre Talk next Wed July 22 @ 4pm PT/7pm ET. They’ll chat about Playwrights Arena, Jon’s process as a director, and his advocacy for diversity and antiracism awareness in our LA theatre community.

JON LAWRENCE RIVERA is the recipient of the first Career Achievement Award from Stage Raw. Most recently, Rivera directed the following critically-acclaimed world premieres for Playwrights’ Arena: SOUTHERNMOST by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, BABY EYES by Donald Jolly, I GO SOMEWHERE ELSE by Inda Craig-Galván, LITTLE WOMEN by Velina Hasu Houston, BILLY BOY by Nick Salamone, THE HOTEL PLAY (performed in an actual hotel), BLOODLETTING by Boni B. Alvarez (also at Kirk Douglas Theatre), @THESPEEDOFJAKE by Jennifer Maisel, CIRCUS UGLY by Gabe Rivas Gomez, PAINTING IN RED by Luis Alfaro, and THE ANATOMY OF GAZELLAS by Janine Salinas Schoenberg. Other recent works include: AMERICA ADJACENT by Boni B. Alvarez, BINGO HALL by Dillon Chitto, FAIRLY TRACEABLE by Mary Kathryn Nagle, OBAMA-OLOGY by Aurin Squire, CRIERS FOR HIRE by Giovanni Ortega, STAND-OFF AT HWY #37 by Vicky Ramirez, FLIPZOIDS by Ralph B. Peña (also in Manila). Recipient of a NY Fringe Festival Award, an LA Weekly Award, and a five-time Ovation Award nominee, Rivera is the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, dedicated to discovering, nurturing and producing bold new works for the stage written exclusively by Los Angeles playwrights.

Jon’s comments on inclusion and diversity in the Los Angeles Theatre Community were recently included in this LA Times feature by Charles McNulty.

Theatre Talk is the Fountain Theatre’s livestream conversation program hosted by Artistic Director Stephen Sachs, engaging theatermakers, theatergoers and theater-thinkers. Live on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Zoom and seen here on our website.

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