Playwright: Chloe Johnston and the cast
At: Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland
Phone: (773) 275-5255; $12
Runs through: April 26
Jews, gypsies and gays were lynched in 19th and 20th Century America, but Blacks were lynched most of all; more than 2,500 between 1882 and 1911 alone, according to Booker T. Washington. Often dismissed as a southern phenomenon, lynchings also occurred in Illinois, Indiana and other Northern states. The Emmett Project, created by Chloe Johnson (who also directed) and her four-person cast, is a kinetic classroom lesson on the subject, centering on four lynchings with national impact between 1899 and 1955.
The primary focus is the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a boy from Chicago visiting Mississippi. He was pistol whipped to a faceless pulp—literally—then shot and tossed in a river. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, putting such a gruesome 'face' on this savage crime that it could not be ignored. The death of Emmett Till became a powerful civil-rights movement catalyst.
Surveying the opening-night audience, mostly twentysomething white men and women, I wondered how many (or few) had heard of Emmett Till, and knew what place his horrible death held in our nation's racial and judicial history. I wondered how many recognized other notable Black Americans mentioned in The Emmett Project, including Robert Johnson, Langston Hughes, Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. DuBois, whose names were part of a my public school education. On a day during which a fellow journalist accused me of being racist, and of taking everything out on the few Blacks in the industry, I realized how emotional racism remains, whether real or perceived, and what a convenient excuse it provides to justify negativity.
Johnston and her coauthor/performers—John Byrnes, Steven F. McClain, Lisa May Simpson and Linara Washington—energetically attack their subject creating a schoolhouse atmosphere with a 30-foot wide blackboard and a few school desks. But almost instantly they open up the classroom, ripping pages from textbooks to act out the illustrations, staging amateur theatricals, quoting from newspapers, providing direct narration to the audience and distributing handbills. Sometimes lights are bright, while other moments are illumined only by flashlights or candles.
It makes for 90 minutes packed with action and information, and surprisingly entertaining given the grim subject. I learned, for example, that a survivor of a 1930 lynching went on to found the Black Holocaust Museum. However, emotion is almost completely missing. The Emmett Project is thoroughly kinetic, but quite clinical, largely intellectual rather than personal, a history lesson rather than soul stirring. There's personal context only at the end, when McClain and Washington reveal small experiences as Black Americans. The Emmett Project would gain power by showing more of its obvious heart. Or is the subject still too potent to let all the emotions out?