The Ballad of Emmett Till – Los
Angeles Theater Review
SING A SONG OF SAVAGERY
by Harvey Perr
published February 28, 2010
The Ballad of Emmett Till
now playing in Los Angeles at the Fountain Theatre
through March 20
The play is not always the thing. In the case of Ifa Bayeza’s extraordinarily lyrical The Ballad of Emmett Till, I leave questions of its dramaturgy to others. In the theater, however – even
in a theater as close and uncomfortable as the Fountain Theatre – it is as big and bold as life can sometimes be. It is, at first, a work
of casual charm, and it becomes increasingly more thrilling and, finally, it is like the dream turned nightmare. And, when awakening from
it, it rouses bitterness and anger in us, but of a curiously healing sort. If the mind does wander, when it seems more a choreographed poem
than an urgent drama, a heel comes down hard or a hand claps in the darkness and, as we respond to the crack of a whip, we snap right back
to attention. And attention must be paid to this riveting retelling of the tragic story of the 14-year old African-American boy from
Chicago who was savagely murdered in a gulf town in Mississippi for “whistling” at a young white woman and whose open casket (at the
insistence of his mother), showing the awful brutality of the crime, is the stuff of both historical truth and legend.
Ms. Bayeza is interested in the truth, but she is more committed to the legend. And so the “play” she has created is
indeed a ballad, not so much plumbing the depths of her subject as taking it on a musical journey from the everyday to the specific, from
the careless pleasures of traveling to the horrifying end station it moves slowly and steadily towards. And there isn’t anyone involved in this production who doesn’t artistically support Ms. Bayeza’s vision.
Not having seen it at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, I cannot say how the work has been altered, but it is hard, seeing it in its Los Angeles
premiere, imagining a more beautifully controlled production.
The five actors – Bernard Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo, Karen Malina White
– who play all the parts, are like a string quintet playing off each other’s rhythms with rigor and skill. And Shirley Jo Finney – in her
often intricate direction of the ensemble – creates movement in time and space that is both imaginatively unrestrained and vigorously
exacting, propelling the action forward without losing a human heartbeat along the way. Two of the actors make a particularly vivid
impression: Ms. White as Till’s strong-willed mother and in a variety of other roles – each meticulously personalized – is eloquent and
persuasive; Arnell gives a powerhouse performance as Till, open and vulnerable with his easy stutter and his dazzling smile and, in his
final panic, he is genuinely heartbreaking.
The simplicity of Scott Siedman’s set is perfect; it allows Kathi O’Donohue to produce some startling lighting
effects. It will be a long time before anyone forgets the headlights of a car emblazoning themselves from the back wall – as if the car had
stopped on a dime – and making the scrim they are seen through suddenly create the illusion that we are actually seeing the car itself and
the porch of the house its lights are shining upon. In that one moment, we are sucked into the terror from which we never
But special praise must be bestowed lavishly upon David B. Marling’s sound design; this is work of a
very high order, indeed. Sounds pop up everywhere, familiar and ordinary at times, eerie and strange at other times. But the entire evening
is practically driven by the gorgeous Kronos Quartet recording of Steve Reich’s “Different Trains”: that faint echo of a conductor calling out “Chicago,” the combination of violins and steam engines puffing
their way out of Chicago as it moves towards Hell. For even as Reich was celebrating the train travel of his youth, he was also composing a
lament on the trains taking Jews to the concentration camps that would leave their ugly stamp on world history just as Emmett Till’s death
left its ugly stamp on our own.
Taken all together, The Ballad of Emmett Till not only sings, it soars
with a special music, in this fine theatrical work of serious ambition in which every single artisan involved is working at the top of
his/her game. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to see anything better for a long while.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com