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Theater Review: “The Ballad of Emmett Till”

Emmett Till was a delightful, hopeful 14-year-old living on the South Side of Chicago in 1955 when he asked his mom if he could go visit relatives in Mississippi.

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago

When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door

This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well

The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till. 

-- Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till”

“Time was when the death of one black boy meant something,” begins Ifa Bayeza’s harrowing 95-minute “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” playing through July 22 at ion theatre’s Black Box in Hillcrest. Directing chores are shared by company member Yolanda Franklin (in her directing debut) and ion co-founder Claudio Raygoza.

Emmett Till was a delightful, hopeful 14-year-old living on the South Side of Chicago in 1955 when he asked his mom if he could go visit relatives in Mississippi.

A polio victim, Emmett (called Bobo by the family) was left with a stutter. His mom said he “compensated for his stutter with a swagger and a stare,” but mostly he was just a kid excited by life and what he saw as its possibilities.

In a charming early scene, Emmett takes a girl on one of those carnival aerial rides and makes a connection with her. He reports later, “Haven’t heard from her yet.” Then, optimistically, “Only been 3 months.”

But he longs to get out and see the wider world and talks his mom into it despite her misgivings. 

But Mississippi was a different universe.

Emmett didn’t realize that soon enough and became a victim of the virulent racism that still infects American society.

“The Ballad of Emmett Till” has been shortened from its first production in Chicago in 2008. This version plays more like a prose poem than a play. The six actors (who among them play at least 20 characters) are nearly always in motion, partly to move furniture and props for set changes and perhaps partly because this gives the play a propulsive drive to the inevitable tragic conclusion of Emmett’s abduction and murder.

Carefully warned about the South – and instructed not to speak to white people unless spoken to first – Emmett samples life in the South for blacks, spending a day picking cotton with his cousins, and learning from his aunt Liz (Portía Gregory) how to catch, kill and pluck a chicken.

Through it all, Emmett is his ebullient self, until that day in Money, Mississippi when he goes to buy gum at a store. There, the pretty girl behind the counter complains that he flirted with or perhaps whistled at her. That was enough to seal his fate.

Bayeza plays the abduction and murder in near-darkness (thank the goddess), but there’s no mistaking what is happening.

Perhaps the only positive thing to result from this awful incident is that Emmett’s mother insisted on an open casket, so the world would see what was done to her son.

Playwright Ifa Bayeza’s 2008 play has undergone some changes since its first production in Chicago. It’s been shortened to one act, cutting out some apparent repetition. This fluid production is distinguished by constant motion,  almost more concert than play. It’s an interesting if somewhat confusing approach.

Bayeza has said in a local interview that she ignored the advice she got when she started writing: “You’ve got to start with the death.”

“No,” she said, “this is about a life.”

This is an important piece, albeit difficult to watch. 

The details

“The Ballad of Emmett Till” plays through July 29, 2017 at ion BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or www.iontheatre.com