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.