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April 15, 2003

The staging of a dark past

Most students currently attending the University of Chicago, namely those who have taken at least one course in American history thus far in their academic careers, should be at least vaguely familiar with the name Emmett Till. For those of you who are left scratching your heads at the mention of his name, allow me to refresh your memories. In the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Till journeyed by bus from his home in the South Side of Chicago to see relatives in Mississippi. Days later, Till?s mutilated body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, a bullet hole in the head of what was once a handsome, young African-American boy. Till?s crime: whistling at a white woman in a local grocery store.

Till?s death was the result of what today we would call a hate crime. In essence, he was murdered because he was an African-American who had overstepped his place, one of thousands of victims of white bigotry that would help catalyze the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s. The dramatization, and subsequent analysis, of some of these incidents, create the content for The Emmett Project, the latest prime-time production of the Neo-Futurists, one of Chicago?s leading proponents of cutting-edge theater.

Although the production, which began its run on March 20, and will close its doors on April 26, is a collaborative effort, it is the brainchild of one woman in particular. This woman, the show?s director, is Chloe Johnston, outreach and development coordinator for University Theater at the University of Chicago. ?I knew I wanted to do something about race,? says Johnston. ?But I wasn?t sure what.? It wasn?t until hearing a radio interview with Till?s mother, who had fought tirelessly for civil rights in her son?s name, that Johnston found inspiration for her production.

Johnston?s show not only borrows its name from Emmett Till, but uses his story as a framework and guiding light for the 90-minute production. The cast of four actors?one African-American man, one African-American woman, one white man, and one white woman?make full use of the space of the Neo-Futurariam, which is similar in size and aesthetic to a black box theater. Some of the theater?s quirks, such as a blackboard that runs the length of the theater?s back wall, were particularly well-suited to this production, as the set was a minimalist representation of a elementary school classroom, with the actors all classmates of the recently deceased Emmett Till.

After establishing the classroom space, what follows does not adhere to traditional dramatic narrative form. The production unfolds in four distinct sections, yet each part is filled with classic Neo-Futurist abstraction, as the stories of Till and three other victims are told through tableau, light and shadow, and words and phrases scrawled across the blackboard. One particularly hilarious, yet poignant, section portrays the murder of one Will Potter, whose tragic death is illustrated in the exaggerated terms of Vaudeville.

Given the dimensions of the performance space, and the versatility of the small cast, there is a natural emphasis placed on audience intimacy, placing the viewer in an active, and occasionally awkward, position. Moments of impromptu interaction help to further break down the fourth wall; one particular segment of the production allows the cast to ask one another questions addressing stereotypes associated with one another?s ethnicity. In a show full of them, this is one of its most poignantly honest moments.

Of all the killings and lynchings depicted in The Emmett Project, Emmett Till?s is the most important to the black civil rights movement, simply because of the time in which it occurred. Sandwiched chronologically between the monumental decision of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycotts, the Till murder was an event that further inflamed the African-American cause.

Johnston?s show aims to capture this outrage, and use it to bring awareness to assumptions about race, and the roles of an actor and an audience. Perhaps the most important aspect that the show brings attention to is these stories? roles in history; ?This is the same story happening over and over again,? says Johnston, which is the cross that we, as audience members and Americans, must bear.