Civil rights tragedy brought to West Coast stage
Five black actors stood together on a small, emotionally-charged stage, moments away from telling a story very few people know in full. The actors â€” four surrounding one â€” suddenly broke into a chant describing the heart-breaking story of Emmett Till. The one in the middle, contorted and twisted, slowly rose from the ground as if being born into his own tale, that of a 14-year-old black boy whose murder helped spark the civil rights movement. And then â€” almost imperceptibly â€” the songlike chant slowly transformed to speech, organically transitions into traditional dialogue.
The grace with which the words flowed, the incredible changes that came over the characters and the ingenuity of the playâ€™s musical aspects had the audience wondering if Ifa Bayeza, the playwright of The Ballad of Emmett Till, was more a magician than a writer.
After glowing reviews and prominent awards for the playâ€™s debut production at Chicagoâ€™s Goodman Theater, Bayeza decided to bring The Ballad of Emmett Till to a more intimate setting. The writer found that setting in the Fountain Theatre and decided to give Los Angeles the honor of hosting the playâ€™s West Coast premiere.
â€śLos Angeles presents the opportunity to bring the play to a broader national conversation. I wanted to really test its potency as a major American story,â€ť Bayeza explained.
But after Emmett Tillâ€™s remains were tragically vandalized in a Chicago cemetery last summer, Bayeza started to rethink the story she was telling.
â€śI felt the story was not yet resolved because here was another affront to his legacy,â€ť Bayeza said. â€śI wanted to re-envision the story down to the sparse and a more desperate and lonely level because the cemetery tragedy brought a whole experience of grief back into my consciousness.â€ť
She cut the cast down to five, and the actors played every role. The actor who played Emmettâ€™s black cousin also played his white killer. The same actress who played Emmettâ€™s great-aunt also played his grandmother. The only one with a single role was Emmett himself.
Director Shirley Finney, who specializes in experimental and conceptual theater, suggested that the spiritual oneness that comes from a cast of five creates more freedom than it does challenges.
â€śEmotions donâ€™t see color, we transcend the spirit of who we are as human beings,â€ť Finney said. â€śIf you can keep up spiritually and understand connectedness, we could connect as a human race.â€ť
But most impressive was the ease with which the transformations happened. The accents, though changing, were flawlessly consistent. Karen White, who at one point played a black boy with captivating charm, would disappear behind a desk and reappear as a mature white woman with an impeccable southern belle attitude.
But characters were not the only things that transformed. The entire play flowed from dialogue to song, to dance, to dream, to flashback, to reality. Nothing stopped moving for the entire two hours, just as Emmett Till â€” a self-proclaimed â€ślover of languageâ€ť â€” never stopped talking.
â€śHe walked with a limp and spoke with a stammer, but he never let the disability stop him, which you glean from this piece,â€ť Finney said. â€śFor the first 50 minutes you simply fall in love with this man.â€ť
But Bayeza and Finney did not just tell the story of Tillâ€™s brief life. Their work embodies the spirit of the boy with the rhythm of speech and the musicality of language.
Bayeza captures this essence in what she calls the â€śdance of language.â€ť
â€śWe had the actors physicalize the language with their bodies, which makes it a powerfully magical and spiritual experience, one that feels very current,â€ť Bayeza said.
The music seems to â€śphysicalizeâ€ť just as well in a scene where the performers beat bamboo drumsticks. The percussive performance ignited rhythm, beats and ritual in an intimate scene between Emmett and his uncle.
â€śThe bamboo sticks are more about keeping with the global urban aesthetic, rhythmic, spiritual and emotional appeal,â€ť Finney said, referencing the hip-hop, jazz, crump and a cappella influence in the play. â€śThis is so immediate and organic. There is electric energy. It is an interdisciplinary theatrical experience.â€ť