Another Telling of Emmett Till’s Story

Emmett Till, a river, a Noh play by Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky, is the contribution of Theatre of Yugen to the rich literary and dramatic legacy of Emmett Till’s story.  The magnitude of that legacy is suggested by the online bibliography of Emmett Till in Literary Memory and Imagination (see  http://faculty.samford.edu/~cpmetres/bibliography.html), which  lists more than 130 poems, plays, novels, and other literary and dramatic renderings and adaptations.  The online list excludes most works published or produced after 2006, notably Ifa Bayeza’s The Ballad of Emmett Till and Clare Cross’s Emmett Down My Heart, both of which premiered in 2008. 

Emmett Till (Wikipedia)

Emmett Till (Wikipedia)

The Theatre of Yugen production of Emmett Till,  a river differs from most other retellings and adaptations insofar as it does not expressly explore the murder, the perpetrators, or the trial.  Emmett Till appears in the play as a ghost; otherwise the focus is on the two women most closely linked to the story.  Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, reflects on sending her fourteen-year-old son to visit cousins in a social milieu very different from that of his native Chicago.  Carolyn Bryant, the white storekeeper’s wife, considers whether her actions made her culpable in the crime.

Mamie Till was originally from Mississippi, although her family relocated to Chicago when she was a small child.  Aware of the cultural differences Emmett could expect to encounter in the Delta, she tried to prepare him for the trip, on which she would not be accompanying him:

“I let [Emmett and a cousin] know that Mississippi was not Chicago. And when you go to Mississippi, you’re living by an entirely different set of rules. Ah, it is, ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am’, ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’. And Beau, if you see a white woman coming down the street, you get off the sidewalk and drop your head. Don’t even look at her.  He thought I was exaggerating, which I was. I was trying to exaggerate. If I could go high enough, I — things could seek soak into his head that ‘You have to be very careful.’” (from American Experience, The Murder of Emmett Till)

As Emmett’s cousin, Wheeler Parker, told an interviewer:

“The concern for Emmett was that he could be, with his fun-loving, free-spirited way of living, he could get in trouble, could have a lot of problems. He was fourteen, but he just turned fourteen. He was just thirteen just a few weeks before we went down there.” (from American Experience, The Murder of Emmett Till)

TurkelAfter the murder, Mamie Till did not simply grieve and shrink into obscurity.  Rather, by insisting on a glass-topped casket, she ensured widespread dissemination of the image of her disfigured son and rose to national prominence herself.  For the next several decades, she undertook speaking engagements, authored or co-authored books and plays, created and managed a theater ensemble (the Emmett Till Players), worked as a schoolteacher, established a foundation, and gave interviews including one used as the prologue to Studs Terkel’s compilation on Race.

Carolyn Bryant

Carolyn Bryant

It was Carolyn Bryant whose actions—first complaining to her sister-in-law, then affirming rumors that Emmett had behaved in a flirtatious way—triggered vengeance by her husband and one or more accomplices.   (Only two men were tried, but others were purportedly involved.)  What Emmett actually did, during the moments when he was alone with Bryant, is uncertain.  One theory is that he touched her hand while paying for some bubble gum, and some witnesses claimed to have heard him whistle suggestively as he left the store.  In her trial testimony, Carolyn Bryant described the incident in more incendiary terms (http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/till/CarolynBryant.pdf).

Most people educated in the United States within the past fifty years have learned about Emmett Till in school. Those following the news in recent months will know of the parallels drawn between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, and will also have heard that PepsiCo severed a promotional contract with recording artist Lil Wayne after Emmett Till’s family (through the Mamie Till-Mobley Memorial Foundation) objected to an offensive song lyric.  Those wishing to refresh their knowledge of the historical context for Emmett Till, a river will find ample information online.  One good place to begin is the website for the American Experience documentary, at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/index.html.

Teachers wishing to prepare young adults to see the Theatre of Yugen production might also consider assigning the following books aimed at teens:

  • Mississippi Trial, 1955 (2002)
  • Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (2003)
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