The murderers of 14 year old Emmett Till, J.W. Milan and Roy Bryant, would have had the world to believe that he was just some troublesome, pathetic tragic, ill bred “boy” from the north who was either insolent, simply fresh, or just ignorant enough to whistle at a White woman behind the counter of the store.
But in her beautifully crafted biopic, ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till,” Ifa Bayeza” dispels any such notions, instead telling a story of a delightful, determined, driven young man. Committed to his mother, anxious to be part of his family heritage, and therefore excited for his trip south to spend time with them.
This riveting piece had a two-week run from Feb. 5, to 14, as part of the New Horizon Theater’s 2015-2016 season. It reveals a depth of character in this young man which belied his 14 years; and provides the mostly sold out audiences a birds eye view into his being. He was adored, spoiled by his mother and grandmother, valued by his relatives, and despite a slight speech impediment, was filled with personality that resonated with his peers and members of the opposite sex. And what’s more, he saw himself as a champion.
The performance gave voice to Bayeza’s story, through music, some dance, and poetic dialogue laced with humor in some places. The audience met a family not unlike some of our own, who had hope for their young man. Telling a tragic tale, of a mother’s heartache and an uncle and aunt’s anguish; Bayeza captured the essence of a young man who was neither pathetic nor tragic and who continued to champion for himself to the end.
The actors in this production were fully immersed into their roles, with special emphasis on the fact that all except for the role of Till played multiple parts. Dominique Briggs, played Till’s grandmother, a male cousin from Mississippi, Uncle Mose’s wife, and one of Till’s girlfriends back home: Camille Lowman played Till’s mother, a male cousin in Mississippi, and the White woman Emmett was accused of offending: Corey Lankford and Sam Lothard were both brilliant in multiple roles as well. Transitioning between characters was outstanding very smooth; no confusion and no blending of the roles.
The task of transforming seasoned actor, Jonathan Berry to a 14 year old Emmett Till may have seemed unimaginable, but it happened. Berry totally embodied this role, at no point did it seem that here is a 44-year-old man trying to “act” like a teen; thus giving even more credibility to this production in that all the other roles revolved around this character. Berry expertly became this effervescent man-child and was wrapped in the character for two hours, until the after-production dialogue/discussion with the audience where he shared “I truly felt we were all called for our roles, I didn’t know why, but I was just trying to move in that calling.”
It was under the exquisite direction of Dr. Lundeana M. Thomas that all the components came together to create one of the most compelling productions of New Horizon’s Theater Company to date.
Moreover, in the wake of the senseless repeat killings in this country of yet one African American Male after another; since the killing of Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice, and all those in between, through this piece Bayeza gave us a vivid reminder that each one of these young men murdered senselessly were more than just victims in a news story. And while their killers, too, would also have us think of them also as merely trouble making blights on society, thereby justifying the brutish acts of their deaths. Instead, as with Emmett Till, they were multi-dimensional people with adoring families, and hope and aspirations and a heart for living.
In each of our young men, there was a piece of Emmett Till, delightful to a mom, driven, excited by family and life, and each one seeing himself as a champion.
The New Horizon’s season continues beginning May 26 with “From My Home Town,” written by Lee Summers and Director by Eileen Morris.”
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