Dallas — There should be a word to describe a migraine of the spirit. The grisliness of Emmett Till's murder on Aug. 28, 1955, was so unimaginable that the sight or sound of his name still blisters one's conscience. On Oct. 22, the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, owned and operated by TeCo Theatrical Productions, opened its 2015-2016 season with The Face of Emmett Till, a play by Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett's mother) and David Barr III.
Under the direction of Ruth Cantrell, the cast presents this dramatic translation of Till-Mobley's memories through what she described as "a chance to get out what is clogged up inside." Emmett, who was black, was kidnapped and killed at age 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Till-Mobley died in 2003.
The play, originally titled The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till, is presented through time shifts from November 1989 back and forth to August/September 1955. Mamie Till-Mobley is Mamie Till-Bradley during the majority of the time covered in the play. This production is minimalist, in keeping with the playwrights' notes.
It would have been better if more of the author's suggestions had been incorporated. The play begins in the narrative space that in African-American literature deals with the presence of absence, the haunting by what was.
Whisperers chant, "Shame! Shame! Shame in Mississippi! Shame! Shame! Shame in Mississippi! Shame!" In Scene 2, we meet Mamie (Sherry Hurnes) when she is 67, as she prepares to deliver a speech in Montgomery, Ala., at the dedication of the Civil Rights Memorial. She is encouraged by Morris Dees (Paul Engle), the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the Till family following Emmett's murder. The Whisperers remain during this scene, adding "Zeig Heil! Zeig Heil!" to their refrain.
The first time shift takes us to Chicago in 1955 and the home of Emmett, his mother and his grandparents. Mamie helps Emmett (Justus L. Clark) develop coping mechanisms to aid with his stuttering. She teaches him to breathe in a whistle whenever he becomes anxious and begins to stutter.
His great-uncle, the Rev. Mose Wright (J.R. Bradford), argues with a reluctant Mamie to allow Emmett to visit his relatives in Mississippi. Her reticence is shared by her mother, Alma Spearman (Patricia E. Hill), who asks, "Have you forgotten why we left Mississippi?"
Mamie's argues that Emmett is acculturated to Chicago and is ignorant of the behavior expected by Negroes in Mississippi. She worries that he will not understand how critical it is to not make eye contact with white people. After much discussion, Mamie finally gives in. The last time the family sees Emmett alive is at the train station in Chicago.
News of Emmett's abduction is relayed to his mother by telephone, as is the news of his murder. Starting at this point, the play is presented more narrowly, through the lens of Mamie. The viewer witnesses Mamie's emotions during the incessant phone calls, her frantic worrying and increasing frustration over the inaccessibility of reliable information. Though fearful, her mother and stepfather Henry Spearman (Timothy Moore) realize that Mamie must also return to Mississippi, to resolve matters concerning her son.
We feel as if we are there when Mamie first sees Emmett's body. It's delivered in a box, encased in a more enormous box. We can see her face as the box is cut open. Later, during another time shift, Mamie describes what she saw, the actual appearance of the body which did not match the photograph that was distributed by the newspapers. She explains that what the world saw was much better than what she saw, a statement that hangs heavily over the audience.
Act 2 focuses on the trial and the friction that developed over time between Mamie and the NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins (Jarrett Goer). Here the audience learns lesser-known details about the coverage of the murder, the investigation and the family.
This production needed more coherent direction. Act 1 is in some parts disconnected, resulting in part from some curious positioning of the actors. The Face of Emmett Till is a good script with real challenges, but the playwrights' notes offer good ideas toward responding to those challenges.
The cast, an assemblage of seasoned and developing actors, has more than enough to work with. With more skillful guidance and shaping, they could flourish and make the discoveries that would deepen the experience for them and for the audience.
At the reviewed performance, more flubbed lines, missed cues and start-overs occurred than could be ignored. The show had a hurried feel, a sense that it could have benefited from more rehearsal.
Still, there is nice work happening onstage. Justus L. Clark, a 13-year-old honors student at Bishop Dunne Catholic School, is delightful as Emmett and shows promise as an actor. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Emmett.
Kahlil Donovan convinces as Willie Reed, the black man who witnessed the murder and agreed to testify at the trial of the two white men accused of the crime. Seated centerstage in a straight-backed chair with only a handkerchief as a prop, Donovan effectively creates a sense of feeling very small inside an event that was very big.
With more time and guidance, Jarrett Goer could have achieved a performance in which his control matched his wonderful energy and exuberance. Sherry Hurnes was halting at first, but grew more confident as the play progressed. Her inflection and tone synced with her delivery of perhaps the most potent line in the scritp: "When a child dies he disappears into the blank pages of his potential."
TeCo Theatrical Productions is boldly unapologetic in its commitment to creating a space for plays written by women, new works and works that stimulate the audience intellectually. Glitches aside, through TeCo and the playwrights, Emmett Till's legacy has been earnestly refreshed, his story retold in a way that only a mother could have done.
» Note: Co-writer David Barr III will be at the performances on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.