SALT LAKE CITY — Some of the most important stories are also the hardest stories to tell. The Face of Emmett Till is certainly one of those stories. And, thankfully, the EttaGrace Black Theatre Company is presenting Emmett’s tale to the public in Salt Lake City this week for free.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett was an African-American from Chicago who in 1955 liked baseball and the movies. While visiting relatives in Mississippi, Emmett was accused of whistling at a white woman. As an act of retaliation, several nights later Emmett was abducted, beaten, murdered, and his body horrendously mutilated before being dumped into a nearby river. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, shocked the world by holding an open casket funeral for her son in Chicago, an event which galvanized support for the civil rights movement in the United States.
This week’s staged reading of the script—written by Mamie Till-Mobley and David Barr III—is unquestionably powerful. The fact that one of the playwrights was Emmett’s mother only makes the tale more engrossing and naturally heightens the emotions and tension. Emmett’s story is so compelling and moving that any reasonably competent retelling would be fascinating.
Fortunately, this cast was not merely competent. Rather, they excelled at performing their roles. Angela Trusty had the largest role of Mamie, Emmett’s mother, which demands that an actress play many of the most extreme emotions of human existence. The profound grief of a mother who has to bury her child was almost palpable in Trusty’s voice, and it would be hard not to be moved by Trusty’s performance as Mamie second guessed her decisions in the weeks leading up to Emmett’s murder. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Trusty’s performance as a humble, everyday single mother who is thrusted into the role of civil rights activist—a role that she didn’t ask for. Accompanying Trusty in many of her scenes was Toni Byrd as Mamie’s mother, Alma Spearman. Byrd was realistic in her lovely domestic scenes with Trusty, and the scene where Alma is on the phone with a stranger is especially heartbreaking.
Another excellent performance was from Frederick Jackson as Maurice (Emmett’s cousin) and Willie Reed (a witness at the trial). As Maurice, Jackson showed how easy it was for a naive teenage boy from the north, like Emmett, could accidentally violate the stark social divisions that existed in rural Mississippi. The boyish mannerisms and reactions of Jackson make him a convincing teenager and lent a great deal of realism to the scene where Emmett has his fateful encounter with the white woman. Jackson was also moving as Willie Reed, who, despite the bravery of the decision to testify in an open trial against the white defendants, was still terrified to explain to the world what he saw.
Finally, two of the white cast members, Marc Woolley and Conor Thompson, also gave noteworthy performances as the defendants in the murder trial. Both excellently delivered dialogue that was accurate for the historical for the time, but very difficult for modern ears to hear. The two performers clearly demonstrated the gross imbalanced of power that existed in the mid-20th century South and showed how difficult it was for Mamie to find justice for her son. However, I wish that some of the actors had been more adept at working with their scripts. Some lines were a little slow to be delivered, while at times some actors stepped on one another’s lines. However, these were minor hiccups that wouldn’t have distracted me if I weren’t taking detailed notes on the production in order to write a review.
Before the reading started, one of the founders of the EttaGrace Black Theatre Company announced that the reading was in preparation for a full production that the company hopes to mount next year. I urge them to follow through with these plans so that the Emmett Till story is given a more prominent telling in Utah. Melissa Adams has directed a fine stage reading, and if most of the cast and all of the emotion are included in a full production, then it has a good chance at being a success. Until that day comes, though, Utah audiences will have to be satisfied with this reading.