On the Shoulders of Anonymous

As a writer, I am inevitably interested in approaches to storytelling.  When I heard that Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky were planning a Noh-inflected telling of the story of Emmett Till, I was intrigued, because it certainly was not obvious how they would go about their task.

One challenge of adapting a story to Noh is that, in contrast with Western dramatic forms, a Noh play usually features only two actors, a main character (shite), who is the subject of the play, and a secondary character (waki), who is often simply an interlocutor or witness but can also, in some circumstances, have a role in the narrative.  The story of Emmett Till involved an array of characters, any of whom one might choose to feature in a play:  the teenage Emmett Till himself, the young woman Carolyn Bryant, her husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam, also potentially the cousins Emmett was visiting, his mother who was home in Chicago at the time but who became famous after the murder, and various representatives of law enforcement, attorneys, and jurors who participated in the murder trial.   Which one or two of these characters would Simmonds and Halebsky choose to portray?

Different Categories, Different Options

There are five categories of Noh plays, each focused on a different type of protagonist.  One evening, on a whim, I made notes for one hypothetical play in each category.  Together they could tell much of the story of Emmett Till:

  • God play—Category 1.  A play in this category establishes an elevated mood, and in the most revered God play, Okina, a hieratic dance is performed by one character in a white mask (Okina) and one in a black mask (Sambaso).  A God play reflecting on the sobering events of August 1955 might describe the setting, natural and cultural.  Dancers could enact the black and white racial encounter, suggesting that Emmett Till’s story, tragic as it was, budged the nation forward on a journey that is still in progress as we remember, retell, and reflect upon the events and their underlying social dynamics.
  • Warrior play—Category 2.  A play in this category concerns a man, usually a warrior, but in Atsumori, one of the best-loved plays in its category, the warrior is revealed to be practically a child.  I can imagine a Category 2 play focused on Emmett Till, a boy in a war zone like Atsumori, with maybe a slingshot or harmonica in his pocket.  (Atsumori carries a flute.)  Emmett certainly did not travel south to be a warrior—maybe he was just beginning to feel like a man at age 14—but through his mother’s efforts, he soon became a symbol of struggle, his name a rallying call.  I hope such a play would remind its audience that Emmett Till was also, essentially, a normal teenage boy who met an unspeakable end far from home.
  • Woman play—Category 3.  A play in this category concerns a woman preoccupied with sorrowful memories.  The obvious choice would be Mamie Till, who let her son travel without her to visit relatives in Mississippi, with such horrible consequences.
  • Miscellaneous play—Category 4.  A play in this category often concerns a disturbed woman.  In this instance the woman could be Carolyn Bryant, whose interpretation of her meeting with Emmett Till, or arguably her fear as to how others in her family and community might react, precipitated the tragedy.
  • Demon play—category 5.   A play in this category concerns a demon.  The men who, in their fury, tortured and murdered Emmett Till could be rendered as demonic without a playwright’s needing to exaggerate the details of their actions.

It would, I think, be a rich experience to participate in a workshop in which five writers each developed one of these ideas, or similar ones.  Then the whole series of plays could be presented as a cycle. (The performance of a cycle of five plays, one in each category, is traditional in Noh.   Theatre of Yugen itself performed a cycle of Noh-influenced plays by Erik Ehn in July 2007.)

The Path of Adaptation

Speculation aside, what Kevin Simmonds and Judy Halebsky actually did, after a series of initial experiments and a work-in-progress presentation at the NOHspace, was to adapt an existing Noh play, Fujito.  The high-level synopses given here hint at the similarities between Fujito and Emmett Till, a river.


Fujito is a category 4 play of unknown authorship, probably written in the fifteenth century.   A lord, by the name of Moritsuna, arrives at Fujito.  He is the waki.  (By convention in a Noh play, the waki enters before the shite and introduces himself to the audience.)  Moritsuna has recently been awarded a fiefdom in recompense for leading an army to victory in battle.  He holds court and invites petitioners to approach him.

One of the petitioners is a woman, who claims that Moritsuna killed her son.  This actor is the shite, appearing in this act as a disturbed woman.  At first Moritsuna denies the deed, but soon he begins to recount the details of the murder.  The woman’s son had provided valuable information to Moritsuna’s army:  he had shown them where they might cross the sea.  Moritsuna had then killed the young man to prevent him from divulging information to the enemy.  Faced with the mother’s grief, Moritsuna promises to pray for her son.  He commands a memorial service and a (brief) moratorium on the taking of lives.

In the second act, the young man’s ghost appears and expresses resentment against Moritsuna.   The role is played by the same shite actor who was the grieving mother in the first act.  Since his death, the young man has lurked beneath the waves as a dragon seeking vengeance, but now Moritsuna’s prayers have released him so he can enter the afterlife.

Emmett Till, a river

In Emmett Till, a river Carolyn Bryant, the storekeeper’s wife, arrives alongside the Tallahatchie River fifty years after the murder.  Like Moritsuna in Fujito, she is the waki.  She boards a riverboat and soon meets a woman who claims that Bryant killed her son.  This actor is the shite, appearing in this act as Mamie Till.   At first Bryant resists being implicated, but soon she begins to recount details of the murder and her involvement.

In the second act, Emmett’s ghost appears and holds Bryant accountable by virtue of the fact that she could have saved his life but instead precipitated his death.  The role of Emmett is played by the same shite actor who was Mamie Till in the first act.  For fifty years, his soul has been entangled, but now the prayers of those who remember his story have released him.  He rises into the sky.

By Way of Preparation

It is common for members of a Noh audience to bring libretti to performances and follow along.  I do not think Theatre of Yugen will be making a libretto available for Emmett Till,  a river, but those interested in how Simmonds and Halebsky adapted their source to tell a modern story might want to look in advance at the following texts:

  • William Ritchie Wilson’s translation of Fujito, published in Monumenta Nipponica 29:4 p.439-449, 1974.   This is the text of which Emmett Till, a river is an adaptation.  It is available on JSTOR.  (Note:  The script for Emmett Till, a river explicitly cites the Wilson translation as its source.)
  • A summary of Fujito, available at http://www.noh-kyogen.com/story/english/Fujito.pdf
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