Playwright gains perspective for 'Ballad'

CHICAGO — More than three decades ago, Ifa Bayeza came up with the idea that her sister, a poet, should create a work for the stage. “I went on a two-year effort to convince her to release her writing for performance artists,” Bayeza explains.

The effort paid off. The work that ultimately emerged — a “choreopoem” called “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” — became an iconic work of art produced by the Public Theater and on Broadway in 1976, and is slated for a Rialto revival this summer with Whoopi Goldberg producing.

Bayeza’s sister, Ntozake Shange, became an acclaimed playwright.

The irony is not lost on Bayeza. “Ntozake would be the first one to tell you she never wanted to be a theater artist,” she says. “On the other hand, I’ve been writing plays since the sixth grade.”

Now, Bayeza is nearing a career highlight: Her newest play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” premieres at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Directed by Oz Scott, the original helmer of “for colored girls,” the show opens May 5.

“I’ve always felt a connection to Emmett Till, ever since I was a child,” says Bayeza, who grew up in St. Louis at the dawn of the Civil Rights era.

Till, a 14-year-old from South Chicago, was visiting family in Mississippi in 1955 when he was kidnapped, beaten and killed for whistling at a white woman. When his mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, the images of his beaten body became a catalyst for change. The Montgomery bus boycott began roughly three months later.

Till’s story is well-known. Within the last few years, two admired documentaries explored the events, but, like previous tellings, they focused either on the trial, where the two men charged were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury despite having admitted to their actions, or on Till’s mother, who devoted her life to relating what happened to her son.

Bayeza’s play focuses on Till himself.

Bayeza worked as a writer-producer in Los Angeles, and about 10 years ago decided to rededicate herself to the theater, settling in Chicago. She was working on a different play when, she explains, “Emmett Till walked into the scene.”

She began reading more, and was surprised at how contradictory and unclear the historical record was, particularly about Emmett himself. “I determined I had to do my own research, and began discovering a narrative that had not come forward about who Emmett was, and what happened in those critical seven days,” Bayeza says. “I found a remarkable young man.”

Of course, it’s not easy telling the story from the perspective of a teenager who died.

“This is not a docudrama, although it has a lot of very real things in it,” Bayeza says. And, as the title implies, it has a musical quality. “It travels through time, it uses memory in an inventive way, it integrates heightened moments of epic tragedy with a cappella songs that come out of the naturalism of the moment.”

It is, though, much more a traditional play with traditional dialogue than anything Bayeza’s sister has written. “She’s a poet who’s dramatic,” Bayeza says of her sibling. “I’m a dramatist who’s poetic.”

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