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THEATER The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till
by Rick Reed
2003-09-17

This article shared 18664 times since Wed Sep 17, 2003
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Playwright: David Barr and Mamie Till Mobley At: Pegasus Players, 1145 W. Wilson

Phone: (773) 878-9761; $18

Runs through: Oct. 19

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The story of Emmett Till, regarded by many as the springboard to the civil-rights movement in this country, is not an easy one to watch. It doesn't matter so much that the story, retooled from a 1999 effort, boasts clear-sighted, nimble direction, an austere but evocative set and lighting, and a cast that approaches their subject with reverence and a firm commitment to not overplaying the sensational material. It doesn't make it any easier to know that its script, penned by a playwright (David Barr) who's somewhat of an expert on the African American experience in Chicago and the victim's mother, who passed away at the beginning of this year.

No, none of these things make the experience of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who visited his sharecropper uncle in Mississippi in 1955 and never survived the trip, any more bearable. Emmett Till's story is one of horror and it casts an unflinching light on the very darkness of the human heart. Emmett Till was a spirited adolescent, making his first trip away from his widowed mother, when he happened to brag to his cousins that he had a white girlfriend back home in Chicago. Disbelieving, the cousins urged him to prove his prowess with white women by chatting up a white store clerk. What happened in that store may or may not have included a wolf whistle (the play makes it clear that Till, who had a legacy of stuttering from an early childhood bout with polio, used whistling as a way to soldier through speech when he got stuck on a word), an inappropriate touch, and a few flirtatious words.

Regardless of the perceived impropriety, Till's punishment went far beyond the pale. He was subsequently lynched (including being kidnapped in the middle of the night, beaten mercilessly, shot, with his remains tied to a cotton gin fan and left to rot in a river) and his murder, and open-casket funeral, attracted massive media attention and roused a country still slumbering under the innocence of what human beings were capable of doing to other human beings in the name of race. The men accused of killing him, who had a powerful case built against them, including eyewitness reports, were acquitted, never having to pay for their crime.

This is the story Pegasus Players have brought to light to open their 2003-2004 season. Playwrights Barr and Mobley have drawn, with deft, expressive strokes, the tale of discrimination, murder, and a nation just beginning to come to terms with the repugnance of bigotry in the south. As an audience, we may want to look away at the scenes of murder, a mother's grief, and the horror of opening a casket containing the rotting and badly mutilated corpse of a young boy, but we can't, because the playwrights have made it imperative that we see, and experience, the outrage that occurred some 48 years ago.

The play is not without faults: some scenes, such as the ending and the superfluous opening, meander on too long. But overall, this is an inspired piece of theater, with an excellent and committed cast (Barbara L.W. Myers, as Till's dedicated and grieving mother, is particularly powerful) and a restrained presentation. You will come away from the theater outraged and depressed, and that's as it should be. Some stories are much more than an evening's entertainment. This is one of them.


This article shared 18664 times since Wed Sep 17, 2003
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