In her accomplished but not yet fully focused new work, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” playwright Ifa Bayeza is not at all shy about making a direct comparison between her title character, the Chicago teen whose brutal 1955 murder in Mississippi helped spark the Civil Rights movement, and Jesus Christ. In fact, she opens with a bluesy gospel ballad: “Come on let me tell yuh the tale of Emmett Till,” the ensemble sings, “Though they put his body down/His soul is rising still.”
But the play is at its best, and most meaningful, not when it takes on Emmett the iconic symbol, but when it details Emmett the man, or rather, Emmett the 14-year-old kid.
The extremely strong first half reclaims Emmett Till as a human being, making him represent far more than just a historical victim of racial hatred. As depicted in a performance by Joseph Anthony Byrd that’s both spunky and elegant, Emmett is a full-blooded teen who compensates for his short height and stutter with a big smile and a passion for stylish shoes.
Byrd’s Emmett, called by nicknames Bo and Bobo, is incredibly identifiable, a youth on the verge of adulthood, putting on a suave gait to lure the ladies. Emmett sees his summer trip to Mississippi to visit family as a chance for independence, away from his doting, protective mom (the excellent Deirdrie Henry).
Once in Mississippi, he’s the urban descendant of an agricultural South experiencing culture shock. Absolutely the funniest moments come with Emmett trying to learn to pick cotton and kill a chicken.
Bayeza’s portrayal of Till is extremely detailed and, while it maybe feels a touch idealized, it’s also down to earth. She perfectly sets the stage for his whistle at a white woman as an act of innocence.
The huge air of dramatic irony that hangs over the early events — “No, Emmett, don’t go to Mississippi!” “Don’t buy that bubble gum!” — combined with Oz Scott’s smooth direction and a smart, spare revolving set design by G.W. Mercier, gives the events a pent-up, emotionally gripping intensity.
The utter perplexity of Emmett’s Uncle Mose (John Wesley) when the kidnappers arrive is probably the single most powerful element of the evening, his ineffectual response to the white invaders containing both social context and tragic human frailty.
The second half of the piece becomes more effortful as Bayeza tries to do too much. The playwright wants to keep the focus on Emmett — he haunts his own trial, dressed in white, commenting on some of the testimony — but she also gets sidetracked. She brings in journalist Jimmy Hicks (Samuel G. Roberson Jr.) as a means of acknowledging the role of the black press, but his scene seducing a potential source feels like a dramatic cliche.
And Bayeza creates another side story involving African-Americans who witnessed the crime, a concept that was one of the scribe’s initial inspirations into the story but is not nearly developed enough to be more than a confusing distraction.
At the core of the second act — which bounces about in time, repeating sequences of the kidnapping — is the beating of Till, which finally takes over the end of the play leading us back into the Christ metaphor and the seeking of a redemptive moral.
These sequences of torture, again beautifully staged by Scott in a manner that’s stylized but never unreal, have extreme force and are even hard to watch. But they return us to the focus on Emmett himself, away from the abstractions of the projections on corrugated backdrops, or any academic history lesson. “The Ballad of Emmett Till” finds the most meaning, and power, when it’s least self-consciously interpretative.