When I was offered the chance to review Fountain Theatre’s streaming revival of The Ballad of Emmett Till, written by Ifa Bayeza and directed by Shirley Jo Finney, I jumped at the chance, stirred myself from pandemic lethargy, and set up to view the show on my Macintosh computer. Soon the cast, led by the irrepressible Lorenz Arnell as Emmett, a delightful, impish ball of energy, appeared on the center of the screen surround by Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, and Karen Malina White, as Emmett’s family in Chicago and Mississippi.
Emmett begs his mom to let him take the train to Mississippi to be with his relatives in the summer of 1955. She reluctantly agrees. As enacted by Mr. Arnell, Emmet is a happy motormouth, speaking with a voice that squeaks up to the soprano range when excited. He can be endearing, annoying, and enthusiastic with a love of life that is palpable.
It is historically unclear what exactly ignited the encounter that led to his ultimate fate, but the incident occurred in Money, Mississippi on August 24, 1955, when Emmett and his friends went into Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market. Emmett maybe flirted, or gave a wolf whistle directed at store cashier, Carolyn Bryant, a white woman and the wife of the owner, Roy Bryant.
That night Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, abducted the boy, brutalized him, shot him in the head, then tied him to a 75-pound cotton gin and threw him in the Tallahatchie River. The body was recovered three days later. His body was shipped to Chicago and the mutiilation of his body was so extreme that his mother (Karen Malina White) insisted the body be viewed in an open casket so the world could see what was done to him.
The Ballad of Emmett Till is a deeply powerful experience, even on a small screen, even in the presentational mode of Zoom streaming. The final twenty-three minutes of the performance drew me in, riveted my attention, and left me emotionally spent.
Streaming will never replace the live experience, but this production of The Ballad of Emmett Till will serve for now. I long to see it on stage, in the theatre. Kudos to Fountain Theatre.
In preparing for this review, I had the benefit of an excellent on-line article, Inside The Brutal 1955 Murder Of 14-Year-Old Emmett Till That Galvanized The Civil Rights Movement (https://allthatsinteresting.com/emmett-till-story). The full story with photographs is available. Be warned; it is disturbing. The Ballad of Emmett Till, is now streaming on demand through December 1 at the Fountain Theatre’s website: https://www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020.