Through countless interviews over the past decade with Emmett Till's family, teachers, classmates and eye-witnesses to the boy's brutal 1955 murder, emerging Chicago playwright Ifa Bayeza has penned a dramatic work, part history and part mystery: The Ballad of Emmett Till. Till was developed in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre's 2006 New Stages Series, where it enjoyed a sold-out reading, as well as at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's 2007 National Playwrights Conference. The Ballad of Emmett Till will run February 11 through March 20 ath the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
In her script notes, playwright Ifa Bayeza describes Till as written "in the footsteps of an old man; a memory; a mystery; myth; a deconstructed, reconstructed jazz play." Using factual accounts and creative interpolation, Till is based on the brutal 1955 Mississippi murder of the 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The decision of his mother, Mamie, to have an open-casket funeral fueled a life-long struggle to force America to confront its legacy of enslavement and Southern terrorism. Emmett's murder-and the national revulsion which followed-is believed by many to have sparked the modern civil rights movement, and remains one of the most pivotal incidents in a monumental era.
"Like many people, I knew the basic blueprint of Emmett's story and was profoundly affected as a youth on the frontlines of racial integration," said Bayeza. "In all of my research for this piece, there was very little to be found about Emmett-I wondered, who was this boy whose summer trip to Mississippi changed the course of an entire nation? There was such a difference between the way Emmett was described by William Bradford Huie in Look magazine-as a sexually aggressive, predatory thug-and the way his mother spoke of him, how he whistled because he stuttered. I thought that there was a real mystery play between those two worlds. Till is based on history, but I am drawn to and am highlighting the mythic and epic elements of this saga."
Over ten years in the making, The Ballad of Emmett Till began as a one-act and expanded into a full-length play in four movements. Bayeza first presented excerpts of Till at the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria, Louisiana, where she was named the 2003 Arna Bontemps Centennial Scholar. In June 2005, Movement One of Till received its first public staged reading at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directed by Sue Lawless, the play was then presented as part of the Juneteenth Legacy New Plays Festival. In September 2005, Bayeza read Movement One in a solo presentation at the Stillman College conference "The Murder of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Struggle" in Tuskaloosa, Alabama. Also in September, the Fountain Theatre of Los Angeles hosted a staged reading of Movement One directed by John Wesley.
Tillwas then selected by Brown University's Rites and Reason Theatre and Providence Black Repertory Company as the inaugural project for RPM Mainstage-a new play development partnership established through Brown's Office of the President. Bayeza began a six-month residency to develop the full-length Till, culminating in the first staged reading of all four movements at Providence Black Repertory Theatre in March 2006, directed by the late Marsha Z. West. In July 2006, Bayeza directed a reading of Till at New Federal Theatre in New York City and in September, Till was included in Goodman Theatre's New Stages Series, directed by Clinton Turner Davis. In summer 2007, Till was named one of eight plays included in the National Playwrights Conference at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, where Bayeza spent a month-long residency and the play enjoyed two script-in-hand readings directed by Kate Whoriskey. The Goodman's world premiere production is directed by Oz Scott, a longtime creative colleague of Bayeza, who also directed her sister Ntozake Shange's play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf-for which Bayeza served as the dramaturg and set designer at the New Federal Theatre and The Public Theater.