Often called "the hate crime that changed America" by current historians, as well as journalists of the era, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till was shocking in its brutality. Till's mother made a shocking decision of her own, electing to have the boy's casket open at the funeral so that the world could see his disfigured face and the extent of what had been done to him.
Google the pictures -- he's not even recognizable as a human being. Photos of the body hit the black press, then eventually made it to more mainstream (read: white) media, and the world reeled.
Allegedly having whistled at a white woman in Mississippi while visiting from Chicago, the boy was taken forcibly from a relative's home where he was staying on his visit, taken to several different locations, getting beaten at each, then finally shot and dumped in the Tallahatchie river.
Director Rod Clark recently talked about the elephant in the room: an interracial cast doing a play about racially-motivated violence set in the 1950s South. If there is to be any reality connected to the production, there's going to be some uncomfortable language.
"When we first started out with the play, we ran into the words. It has a lot of derogatory language. It's set in a time when people used this type of derogatory language," Clark said. "So when our rehearsals started, we talked about how we're just doing a play, and because of the play and what it's about, there was derogatory language that white cast members use, like 'nigger' and what have you."
There it is. That Word. With all the hate and history that it carries.
"But we've become a family," Clark said. "We really have.
"You know, there are scenes where Emmett is being beaten, and this is the type of derogatory language that would have been used," he said.
While the cast has worked together as a unit, even a family, the experience has reinforced that old adage that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words leave scars that will last forever."
"Everybody works together," Clark said. "Even when the cast is using that type of language and going through those types of things. We all understand that we're trying to realistically portray what it was like."
A Holocaust, Revisited.
For some, that's easier said than done. I mean, put yourself in an actor's shoes: you're white and cast alongside black actors. Your script requires you to call these actors terrible names. You do so in a production brought to life by an often-exclusively African-American theater company. At some point, you have to wonder what your cast members are thinking.
"We have some of our white cast members who have felt like they have to say, 'Hey, I'm not like this' while we've been in rehearsals," Clark said. "These are hard things for people to say."
Especially in a society that wants so badly to be a post-racial one (it's not), and this may be exactly why these words need to be said by the people saying them in this show.
"We want people to realize that, 'Wow, this was bad. People really did this. We don't want to go back to those particular times," Clark said.
The play is co-written by Emmett Till's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, herself the core of the show, Clark said.
"It's about Emmett's mother. It's her story. It's just a recap of her experience with Emmett at the very beginning right before he was taking this trip to Mississippi," he said. "And it follows Emmett getting brutally beaten and lynched, and then Mamie decides to have an open casket to show the world what had been done to her son."
This particular show is one with which not many are familiar, which, given human nature, might not be all that surprising.
"This play has been rarely produced," Clark said. "I think it's the subject matter. You know, people want to forget about some of the brutal things that have happened in the past."
That's not to say that this is some fringe play that no one has ever heard of or the Theatre North just made up. Debuting at the Pegasus Players Theater in Chicago in 2003 before embarking on a national tour, the play has stirred feelings indignation, anger, guilt, and a myriad of other feelings in audiences around the county.
"A lot of colleges do the show. But there are a few theater companies that have produced it," Clark said. "But again, it's not overly popular. It's the kind of play that elicits bad memories."
Lest one think an evening with this cast would be an evening of horror and sadness, Clark adds a postscript: "But this is, in the end, about healing. It's about remembering. It's about the story," he said.
And stories, irrespective of whether they're comfortable for us, are why we go to the theater. Do yourself a favor and catch this one. Don't want to? First, answer this: About 1,000 words ago, had you ever even heard of this kid?
The Face of Emmett Till is presented by Theatre North and runs February 24 and 25 and March 2 and 3 at 8:00pm in the Charles E. Norman Theater at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $12.50 and available through the Tulsa PAC Box Office at 918-596-7111 or at tulsapac.com.
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