Dallas — A few years ago, TeCo Productions opened its 2015-2016 season with The Face of Emmett Till, written by Mamie Till-Mobley and David Barr III and directed by Ruth Cantrell. It was a play in two acts with an intermission. The first act recounted the days leading up to Emmett Till’s murder and the days immediately following. The second act focused on the trial and the legal backstory.
The story of this murder is once again onstage at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center and again under the direction of Ruth Cantrell. This time however, there are changes, beginning with the play itself. This production is in one act. Following a brief intermission, the second half of the program is announced as a talkback that on the evening of this review, was with the playwright. This iteration of the play assumes an audience with prior knowledge of details surrounding the story of Emmett Till. It is a hopeful assumption that leaves it to the audience to fill in the unexplained spaces.
The story is still told in flashback, beginning in Montgomery, Alabama, as Mamie Till-Mobley (Lydia Brown) and Morris Dees (Zachary Valdez) wait for her cue to deliver a speech. Following this scene is a fuzzy time shift. The play action occurs in different locations—a courtroom, a residential living room, a police station and a funeral home. All of this takes place on the same set and with actors in the same costumes. To help with transitions in the narrative, screen projections are used to establish place. Costume add-ons help establish time of day.
NAACP leader Roy Wilkins is played by Alvis R. Lewis. Keon Jones is Rayner.
The role of Emmett Till is again played by Justus L. Clark. We meet great-uncle Reverend Mose Wright (Tony Key), Mamie’s mother, Alma Spearman (Kenja Brown), and her step-father Henry Spearman (Randy Aguebor). A conversation reveals a split within the family regarding whether Emmett should spend a few summer weeks with in Money, Mississippi with his relatives. Some family members were in favor, others felt uneasy. Eventually Mamie acquiesces and allows Emmett to visit and spend time with his cousin Maurice (Albert Wash II).
One day while playing around outside Bryant’s Grocery Store, trouble happened. Caroline Bryant (Caroline Cole), the grocer’s wife, accused Emmett of whistling at her. This was a punishable offense during 1950s Jim Crow Mississippi, one that in this case was met with death, the terroristic murder of Emmett by vigilantes. An attempt was made to conceal the viciousness of the killing but Mamie insisted on seeing the corpse. Upon seeing what remained of her son, she decided to have an open-casket funeral so that the world could see the carnage and through that, know what was happening to black people in Mississippi.
The scene with Emmett and his accuser, Caroline Bryant, and Maurice, is one of the most coherent. The action is moved downstage and flattened, which works well for that moment.
This cast has a secure handle on their lines and their characters. However, the pace of the performance reviewed was dreadfully slow. This partly results from a sequential and sometimes stereotypical delivery of lines as opposed to a construction of dialogue.
In some ways this production is even more labored than the 2015 production. Awkwardness within the revised script is compounded by perplexing directorial decisions that leave the production with a sense of disorganization. This presentation resembles a staged reading with movement more than a fully-fleshed out play. In resizing the script from two acts to one, some of the essential characters are less clearly defined.
Mamie Till-Mobley could not have known that the murder of her young son would fuel the modern civil rights movement, but that is what happened. She dedicated her life toward ensuring that the story of Emmett Till avoid the graveyard of so many atrocities lost through their omission from historical texts. Retelling the story of Emmett Till is important. So is the manner of its retelling.