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PASSION PLAY
RECALLING A MOTHER'S EXCRUCIATING LOSS

One can only imagine the immense courage required for Mamie Till Mobley to write a play about the brutal murder and mutilation of her son, Emmett Till, in a crime so heinous that it still burns hotly in the conscience of white America almost 46 years after the deed.

But Mobley has demonstrated her courage over and over since that awful August of 1955 when she learned that two white men had abducted and murdered the 14-year-old Emmett, who was on a summer vacation visiting relatives in Money, Miss., from his hometown of Chicago. In the midst of her grief, she decided that the death would become, as she writes in the play, "a worldwide awakening."

And it did: A few months after Emmett's murder, Rosa Parks, with the atrocity and subsequent acquittal of the perpetrators fresh in her mind, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. Thus the civil rights movement was launched, and soon the world was to see, writ large, the shame of white America's virulent racism.

Mobley must have had to muster some of that courage once again Friday night at the opening in Paul Robeson Theatre of "Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till," the play she co-wrote with Chicago playwright David Barr. There she sat, this 79-year-old woman, in the aisle in a wheelchair pushed right up to the edge of the stage, and watched as those terrible events of so long ago were acted out once again before her eyes.

Mobley and Barr -- with additional stage conception by Vincent E. Williams -- have structured the play in a series of mostly short vignettes that slip back and forth in time. Rather than laying out the horrible events of the crime and its aftermath in continuous narrative, the playwrights introduce the action piecemeal through flashbacks. In this way, scenes from Emmett's young life in Chicago can be intermingled with events that led up to the abduction, and these, in turn, can be framed by Mobley's civil rights activities in the years following her son's death.

The play begins and ends in 1989, with Mobley (Cynthia Maxwell) in conversation with Morris Dees (another living civil rights hero, played by Jack Hunter, who also plays one of the sneering killers), the executive director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where Emmett is being honored.

The piecemeal structure of the play promises a kind of powerful staccato drama in which a few terse lines carve out wide emotional territory. Some scenes are no more than a phone call and a brief, but often devastating, conversation.

In this production, however, there is an abruptness to the staging that makes the story seem to bump awkwardly along. Lights flash on to begin a scene and cut to black to end it. This might be an attempt to imitate cinematic cuts, but here it chops up the drama into too many patches of "dead air" (which aren't so dead, given that the audience is left in the dark listening to the considerable noise of scene changes).

David Butler's wonderful set helps unify this broken action. Rarely do you find a set that rings with a single artist's hand and still pulls together four different places and times. What makes it so appropriate to Emmett's tragedy is Butler's almost folk-art-like brushwork and a sense of scale reminiscent of that used by medieval painters in the strangely out-of-whack buildings behind the story of Christ's Passion.

The weakness of the play is its overreliance on short, undeveloped dialogue. You can't blame the actors or Laverne Clay's direction -- and certainly not lightning designer Vincent Polowy -- for a lack of interaction if the dialogue never really gets around to any extended interchange between characters. The extreme brevity of some of the scenes would require a cast well-versed in Samuel Beckett's more austere works to squeeze out the appropriate emotion. The summery goodbye scene at the railway station, for instance, seems incredibly thin given that this will be the last time that Mobley will see her child.

This is a hardworking cast that also includes Leon Hicks (Emmett), Sandra Clay (Mobley's mother, Alma Spearman, who contributes a beautiful singing voice) and Harold L. White (Mr. Spearman), among others. I thought Maxwell neatly rendered Mobley's fortitude and determination and Hicks was beguiling as the stammering Emmett.

But if no one managed to catch the deep emotional pain that permeates his or her character, it may be because the play never does quite articulate these feelings with full dramatic force. In conventional, realistic theater like this, a certain amount of stage time has to pass for both actors and audience to locate their feelings, let alone amplify them. A short phone call and a couple of tearful embraces -- as in the important scene that tells of Emmett's abduction -- is only enough for the most exceptional of playwrights.

The theatrical presentation of the cruel events of the story has its own raw power, no doubt. But in the end, it is the emotional spinning out of the effects of these events on the characters that will make the play a compelling experience.

No one outside looking in on these dramatized events can conceive of what it must have taken for Mobley to write them and, therefore, it may seem a presumptuous act to criticize the result.

But the profound difference between a staged drama and real life was even made clear on opening night.

The book-ending of the play with scenes of a Mobley with a calm and determined purpose functions dramatically as a theatrical shield around the brutal tale within the play. It is the age-old dramatic tactic: Frame irrational acts with the thoughts of a clear and rational mind.

With the mother of Emmett right there in the theater, however, this simple dramatic device seemed more like a mother's instinctive gesture to protect the precious memory of her dead child.

RATING: 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4

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