The Ballad of Emmett Till portrays the tragedy that still haunts

Following many interviews with Emmett Till’s relatives, teachers, classmates and observers about the teenager’s tragic death that rocked the nation in 1955, playwright Ifa Bayeza discovered that the vicious murder still grips society.

Bayeza’s historical retrospective stage play The Ballad of Emmett Till opens Saturday and continues through June 1 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Oz Scott, director of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When The Rainbow Is Enuf, also directs this dramatic interpretation of Till’s life.

“Fifty years later, the tragedy of Emmett Till has lost none of its currency and has assumed an emotional and political significance of almost mythic proportions,” said Artistic Director Robert Falls in a written statement.

“Ifa’s new play is an emotionally and theatrically ambitious work in which we examine our own lives and actions through the prism of an epoch-defining moment in history. We produce this stunning new work at the Goodman with considerable price.”

Bayeza wrote in her script notes, “Till as written ‘in the footsteps of an old man; a memory, a mystery; myth; a deconstructed jazz play.’” Using factual accounts and creative interpolation, Till is based on the brutal 1955 Mississippi murder of the 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till, killed for having allegedly whistled at a white woman.

The decision of his mother, Mamie, to have an opencasket funeral fueled a lifelong struggle to force America to confront its legacy of enslavement and Southern terrorism. Till’s murder%uFFFDand the national revulsion, which followed%uFFFDis believed to be one of the most pivotal incidents in a monumental era. In a personal statement to the press, Bayeza said, “Like many people, I knew the basic blueprint of Emmett’s story and was profoundly affected as a youth on the frontlines of racial integration. In all of my research for this piece, here was very little to be fund about Emmett.

“I wondered, who was this boy whose summer trip to Mississippi changed the course of an entire nation? “There was such a difference between the way Emmett was described by William Bradford Huie in Look magazine%uFFFDas a sexually aggressive, predatory thug%uFFFDand the way his mother spoke of him, how he whistled because he stuttered. I thought that there was a real mystery play between those worlds.

Till is based on history, but I am drawn to and am highlighting the mythic and epic elements of this saga.” The project took nearly a decade for Beyeza to create. Excerpts of Till was read and developed across America, and Bayeza was able to experience the emotional reactions of the many individuals who saw her work.

The drama eventually developed into a four movement project. Beyeza presented portions of the play at the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria, La. The first section was read by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, in Kentucky, which was directed by Sue Lawless.

It was also presented at Stallman College at a conference, “The Murder of Emmett and the Civil Rights Struggle,” in Alabama. The Ballad of Emmett Till was developed in Goodman Theatre’s 2006 New Stages series, a sold-out reading. The drama contiues to gain critical acclaim. The large cast of The Ballad of Emmett Till consists of Joseph Anthony Byrd, who appears in the title role; Deidre Henry, his mother, Mamie Till; John Wesley, Moses Wright, Till’s great uncle, a sharecropper and former preacher.

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