One of the biggest challenges that playwright Ifa Bayeza faced in translating the story of Emmett Till to the stage was balancing Emmett Till, the human being, and Emmett Till, the idea. The story of Till, the young Chicagoan who was brutally murdered while visiting family in Mississippi, became a clarion call for the civil rights movement. Yet Bayeza has stated that she did not want The Ballad of Emmett Till to be political theater, but rather an attempt to tell the often forgotten story of Emmett the young man. That premise may hold in the first act—barely—but by the second act, the play breaks down into incoherence or worse, a civil rights passion play. Those who want a nuanced depiction of the Emmett Till story will be sorely disappointed, and those who decry the absence of American political theater will be outright infuriated by Bayeza’s wildly inconsistent and rather shallow play.
The first act, which inspired most of the hype surrounding the The Ballad of Emmett Till, doesn’t seem to know quite how it wants to tell the story, incorporating song, fourth wall–breaking narration, and vague experimental techniques. Those flaws are redeemed by Joseph Anthony Byrd’s breakthrough performance as Emmett. The play’s greatest accomplishment is breathing life into the personality of this young man, a jubilant, gregarious individual who steadfastly refused to forsake life. You can sense Emmett was a little too exuberant for his own good: It was his joviality that inadvertently led to his murder. Deirdre Henry is somewhat disappointing as the central character of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, but that’s easy to overlook given the superbly wrought interactions between Emmett and his relatives.
Yet if the first act vaguely resembles the work of August Wilson, the disastrous second more closely resembles a high school play and ultimately destroys any good will the first act earned from the audience. The depiction of the trial is remarkably simplistic, there is virtually no indication of the national controversy the case created, and Emmett’s murderers, rather than being depicted with any subtlety, are reduced to classically villainous ogres. In her writings about the The Ballad of Emmett Till, Bayeza makes sure to emphasize the role the black press played in publicizing the murder, but her depiction of the black reporter who broke the Till case is so cartoonish that it’s impossible to appreciate his true impact. The role of the politicians and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People members is no less cheesy, and the decision to double-cast the murderers with the investigators and litigators was also a bit tasteless. The cast seems somewhat clueless about how to deliver lines, and there are many instances when the delivery simply doesn’t match the words being spoken. This is something that should have been addressed early on with basic rehearsal work.
But perhaps the most egregious folly the second act of The Ballad of Emmett Till commits is the dissolution of Emmett as a sympathetically human character. The first act ends with Emmett’s abduction, and it’s understandable that Bayeza wanted to somehow keep the presence of the character who carried the first act. But turning Emmett into a ghost haunting the trial, spouting nonsensical slogans and screaming like a lunatic, is even worse than losing Emmett altogether. All the qualities that made Byrd’s performance charming in the first act vanish in the second, and Byrd can’t be blamed for the impossible writing his ghost is given. The most unforgivable decision was to depict the beatings of Emmett in vaguely torture porn–esque fashion near the play’s conclusion. If Bayeza really meant to shock with the brutality of the murder, she should have shown what inspired the fury of the nation in the first place: The pictures of Emmett’s disintegrated, mangled body, the stomachs of the Goodman’s subscribers be damned.
A video projection of the pictures was certainly within the realm of possibility for director Oz Scott, who has a full arsenal of stage technology at his disposal, but Scott shows even less ability than Bayeza to translate this material to the stage. The play’s technical flourishes and musical accompaniment are misguided and distracting. Why does Emmett’s abduction call for a relatively subdued score, and why do we need to see a video of a lake when Emmett and his uncle Moses are fishing?
I realize that to harshly review a work of theater based on an important civil rights case is to enter dangerous territory, as the current political climate makes criticizing a dramatization of a story like this almost categorically shunned. Yet The Ballad of Emmett Till, a title that belies the lack of poetry or cohesiveness of the play’s narrative, trivializes the tale with base stereotypes and unenlightened rhetoric. If political correctness can permit such superficial righteousness at the expense of a deeper, more enlightened approach, it is no better than the racism it is trying to overcome.