MISSISSIPPI AND THE FACE OF EMMETT TILL
WHAT: Civil rights drama directed by Laverne Clay
WHEN: Through Oct. 14
WHEE: Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave.
INFO: 884-2013 or 885-2590
The sad saga of Emmett Till, who was an early sacrificial lamb in the American civil rights movement, is one of those rare stories that never loses its steam no matter how many times it is recalled.
Knowing this, the African-American Cultural Center's Paul Robeson Theatre has reprised last winter's Black History Month production of "Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till," remembrances of the murder of the boy as told by the victim's mother, Mamie Till Mobley. Laverne Clay again directs, having made a few cast changes and reinstated some dialogue, satisfying himself that an already presentable play is now "tighter."
Emmett was 14 years old in summer 1955 and lived in Chicago with his widowed mother. The boy was brash, from all reports, and confident despite a stutter left from a bout with polio. When stuck on a word, Emmett followed Mamie's advice to "blow it through," whistle it out. The technique always worked in Chicago.
Mamie reluctantly allowed her only child to spend part of that summer "down home" in Mississippi. One night, Emmett was bragging about knowing some white girls in school and indeed flashed a wallet photo or two. His cousins dared Emmett to flirt with 21-year-old white store clerk Cynthia Bryant. The boy tried to ask for bubble gum, couldn't, then resorted to the whistle method. Cynthia took that as the old two-note "wolf whistle." A black teenager whistling at a white girl in 1955 Mississippi? Emmett Till's date with history was sealed.
The rest is well-recorded. Two textbook rednecks, later acquitted, played with arrogant menace by Brian LaTulip and Guy Wagner, kidnapped Emmett, beat and murdered him, then mutilated the features of the boy and weighted down his naked body in the Tallahatchie River with a heavy fan. Emmett's face, described with such quiet passion by Mamie on the witness stand, is wall-projected by director Clay, not for shock but certainly for powerful emphasis, a lasting symbol for justice denied.
Clay's cast is strong down the line: Cynthia Maxwell as Mamie is stoic, resolute and calm, so much so that some of her testimony is nearly inaudible; she's excellent otherwise. There are also stellar performances by Gina Fera, Kinzy Brown, Alton L. Bowens and Leon Hicks, a believable Emmett. Others include Sandra Clay, Graham Dillard, Nicholas Sanni and Kahlil Gibran Jackson.
Sets by David Butler are Spartan but sturdy. Harlan Penn's lighting designs are very effective, in particular, shadowy, off-stage violence.