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His Mother’s Son 

The Emmett Till tragedy onstage, at last

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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Photo by Jay E. Wesselink

In the dog days of August, here is a bit of oft-forgotten history to jar our cultural memory and make clear the origins of the phrase long, hot summer. August 24 will mark 45 years to the day that Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, emitted a fateful whistle at a white woman in the public square of a small Mississippi town that he was visiting on vacation. That whistle-heard-round-the-world led to Emmett’s swift and brutal demise at the hands of a local band of white men. As significant as his death, it turns out, was his funeral: At his mother’s insistence, Emmett’s casket was open, and suddenly, with the advent of television, the world could see the ghastly face of American racism for itself. The image stirred international outrage and proved to be the flash point of the civil rights movement.

On August 24, 2000, at the Complex, the Unity Players Ensemble will premiere The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till, the first theater piece based on a story that has never received a stage, or feature-film, treatment until now. The show, co-written by Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, is told entirely from her point of view, the integrity of which she has doggedly protected over the years. Mobley, now 78, has turned down countless offers for the story rights from Hollywood and other sources.

“I want the truth to be told, that’s it,” says Mobley. “If anyone knows the truth of what happened, I do. If I was going to give my time to tell this story, I wanted it to be accurate.”

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Speaking from her home in Chicago, Mobley sounds a bit quavery but assured. It is clear that since 1955, she has moved far beyond the trauma of losing her son, though it’s equally clear that she inhabits that trauma every day. The nuances and consequences of her pain, and the particulars of her family’s close-knit relationship with Emmett, are what Mobley most feared would be lost if Hollywood ever took on the Till saga. The film business, after all, has a rather dismal record of making black stories, especially those of black men, fully dimensional.

Though many documentaries about Emmett Till have been made, Mobley refused to release the rights to her story until she met David Barr, in 1997, through a mutual friend. A veteran playwright with a penchant for socially conscious material, Barr was immediately drawn to the Emmett Till project. Barr agreed on a collaboration in which Mobley would tell her version of events, which Barr would record and develop into a script. Though the ground rule was that this was to be Mobley’s story, down to the punctuation, both agreed that it would be candid — no canonizing or sugarcoating of Emmett. (The play was debuted in Chicago last year by the Pegasus Players Theater Company.)

“I assured Mamie that I would respect her son’s legacy in this piece, but she also wanted to make sure that I didn’t gloss over things,” says Barr. “Her message was simply, ‘I lost my son, my boy. He was my only child, my grandmother’s only child, and I’m an only child.’ First we had to humanize Emmett, talk about who and what he was.”

Barr believes that was crucial to avoid any number of stereotypes: “I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t all about Nazi Southerners who should all be taken out and shot. I didn’t want black culture, a black story, to be totally dependent on white racism. That bothers the hell out of me.”

From its title, The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till sounds like it might be a courtroom play, and at points, it is, though its principal aim is not to recite transcripts but to detail the life of a young boy and his family before they all became icons of a national tragedy. Thus we’re introduced to Emmett as a rather sheltered kid, cheery enough but plagued by a stutter, tempted by trouble but no more so than the average 14-year-old, averse to his homework on occasion because he’d rather play ball. He generally minds his mother, who’s understandably overprotective of her only child. That he doesn’t heed her vehement warnings about how to behave in the Deep South — never, ever look a white woman in the face, let alone say anything to her — is typical, and proves to be fatal. As in a Dali painting, an ordinary day in the life goes terribly awry.

As the play progresses, the canvas gets more surreal, the horrors more biblical in scope: Mobley keeps strict vigil over her hope that Emmett will be found safe; she gets the news that he’s been found at the bottom of a river with an industrial fan tied to his neck, his face pulpy, disfigured nearly beyond recognition; she fights to get the body shipped back to Chicago, which the Southerners allow only after forcing Emmett’s uncle, Papa Moses, to sign an affidavit promising not to open the sealed casket containing the remains; over the objections of her family and the Chicago undertaker, she threatens to take a hammer to the casket’s lock and break open the Pandora’s box.

An exacting young mother and a tad prim, Mobley nonetheless develops an unflinching eye and a steel core that allow her to look into the box and take inventory of the damage done to her son.

As harrowing and historically valuable as the show may be (a political tiff between Mobley and Roy Wilkins, then national head of the NAACP, is an especially noteworthy subplot), questions are bound to be raised about aesthetics. Mobley would not brook any rewrites or conceptual changes; Spencer Scott, artistic director of Unity Players Ensemble, says that proved to be a tough sell to potential guest directors here, who wanted a certain freedom. Scott wound up directing the show himself, though he says that’s a small concession for being allowed to bring the Till story to the stage. “After I read the script, ” says Scott, “I thought, ‘If after all these years, she wants to share this story with the world in her words, my only obligation is to get the story out.’ I feel a certain indebtedness about the history. When people think of Emmett Till, they say, ‘Yeah, it was important, a kid was killed, there were white people, it was the South.’ There’s much more here that needs to be said.”

Mobley has continued to say it during her career as a schoolteacher and through a youth performance group she founded in Chicago, called the Emmett Till Players. Until about three years ago, she kept vigil at her son’s grave: Turns out it was built over a sewer and the site is now completely submerged in water at certain times of the year. It is a final irony that at first seemed too painful for even Mobley to bear. But she took stock of the tragedy, as she had done in 1955, and has chosen to relocate her son to another site at a cost of roughly $50,000. It’s worth it, she says, given that it was Emmett’s broken body that angered, inspired and motivated so many, that forced everyone to take a long, hard look at race, humanity and family. “It’s important that we not lead cowardly lives,” says Mobley. “In life there’s the good, the bad and the ugly. When it comes to the ugly, we close our eyes.”

 

The State of Mississippi vs. Emmett Till will be performed at the Complex in the Dorie Theater, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through October 1. Call (323) 860-3208.

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