×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Ballad of Emmett Till

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.

With:
Emmett Till - Joseph Anthony Byrd Mamie Till-Bradley - Deirdrie Henry Mose Wright, B.J. Washington - John Wesley

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.

The Ballad of Emmett Till

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 856 seats; $70 top

Production: A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Ifa Bayeza. Directed by Oz Scott.

Creative: Set, G.W. Mercier; costumes, Myrna Colley-Lee; lighting, Victor En Yu Tan; original music, Kathryn Bostic; sound, Richard Woodbury; projections, John Boesche; production stage manager, Joseph Drummond. Opened May 5, 2008. Reviewed May 4. Runs through June 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast: Emmett Till - Joseph Anthony Byrd Mamie Till-Bradley - Deirdrie Henry Mose Wright, B.J. Washington - John WesleyWith: Morocco Omari, Samuel G. Roberson Jr., Phillip James Brannon, Karen Aldridge, Nambi E. Kelley, Kristina Johnson, Cliff Chamberlain, Chris Sullivan, Brian McCaskill, Kirk Anderson.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content