The Fountain Theatre has managed to pull together original director Shirley Jo Finney and the original cast of its 2010 award-winning production of THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL by Ifa Bayeza. Given the current pandemic, however, there are some changes to comply with COVID restrictions. This production is a live-streamed reading of the play coming to the audience via an online platform. Both the play and the platform have been updated to meet today’s needs.
Chicago born and bred Emmett Till (Lorenz Arnell) is a 14-year-old African-American youngster visiting relatives (Rico E. Anderson, Bernard K. Addison, Adenrele Ojo) in Money, Mississippi. Young and cocky Emmett tunes out most of the warnings his family send his way about how “things are different” in the South. After all, this was to be a fun summer junket to experience something new and exciting.
When Emmett is accused of whistling at a grocery store cashier, a white woman with an irate husband and brother-in-law, he does not foresee the consequences. Four days after the “crime,” the two men kidnap Emmett, beat him senseless, and shoot him in the head. Even when both men are charged with murder, an all-white, male jury acquits them. But Emmett’s mother (Karen Malina White) is made of stronger stuff. She insists that his casket remain open, and the ensuing funeral becomes a triggering Civil Rights moment. Sixty two years later, Emmett’s female “victim” finally recanted.
THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL is a powerful production presented by a talented cast and crew. Especially Lorenz Arnell as Emmett Till strikes just the right note as the giddy adolescent impervious to his mortality morphing into the terrified child who simply doesn’t “get it” under the unrelenting fury of two violent adults.
But this review could not be complete without emphasizing the brilliant and seamless way that this play has been transformed from a stage production into an online technological masterpiece. With barely a blink, five people are crammed into a faux vehicle, where they are permitted to move about with ease. The use of backdrops is pure genius. A big city skyline sets the stage for Emmett’s early life. A wooden shack tells everything we need to know about Emmett’s Mississippi family. That is not to say that these scenes were so very different from the stage presentation. It is just to emphasize that they were done so effectively in the era of online streaming.
To quote Fountain Theatre’s artistic director Stephen Sachs, “As America is now being challenged to face its racist history, I can think of no project more worthy…in addition to being the 65th anniversary of the murder, August 28 also marks the 57th anniversary of the historic march on Washington in 1963.” THE BALLAD OF EMMETT is certainly the perfect play for our troubled times: a play which manages to take an idea and a cause and turn it into the intimate and poignant story of a kid who gets caught in the crosshairs of history.
A reading of THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL was live streamed at 4 p.m. (PST) on Friday, August 28, 2020. Thereafter, it will be available for viewing online through December 1, 2020. Tickets are $20.