When Mamie Till-Mobley made the courageous decision in 1955 to openly display the mutilated body of her 14-year old son, she galvanized the nascent Civil Rights movement. Emmett Till was brutally tortured and lynched by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Instead of letting the tragedy be swept away, she boldly exposed the ugly racism that stole her son.
The Face of Emmett Till, written by Mamie Till-Mobley and David Barr III in 1999, chronicles the events leading up to the young boy’s murder and the ensuing years as it fueled his mother’s activism. In the hands of Director Deborah Royals, the Pure Life Theatre production lays bare the haunting pain of this significant historical event and delivers a powerful message.
Tina Morris-Anderson’s depiction of Till-Mobley offers a compassionate portrait of a woman of quiet determination and fortitude which anchors the drama. She may have doubts, but she is undeterred in her pursuit of justice. Even when she is not on stage, her presence lingers, a reminder that this is as much her story as Emmett’s.
As Emmett, Jireh Ijeoma captures the spirit of a young boy on the verge of manhood, eager to have a bit of independence from his demanding mother. Ijeoma also does a particularly fine job with Emmett’s speech impediment, making it seem natural and not forced or comic. He has a loving relationship with his mother, and grandparents, Alma (Verlene Oats) and Henry Spearman (Taufiki Lee). Both actors pour a great deal of emotion and passion into these roles.
Other strong performances in the ensemble come from Jordan “J.D.” Dowd and John Ivey. Dowd, as Emmett’s cousin, Maurice, exhibits an earnest playfulness, teasing and horsing around with his northern relative. As Willie Reed, he delivers an emotionally wrenching account of what he saw of the vicious attack on Emmett.
Ivey’s Moses Wright embodies real terror as he faces the white men who come to take away the young man, and the depths of despair when he recounts the events in court.
And the reenactment of these chilling events is often hard to watch. Till-Mobley wants us to bear witness to what happened as well as the travesty of justice that followed. The racist taunts by the white men who brutalize Emmett are just as horrific as the casual racism of the white defense attorney and the laconic indifference of the white judge who presides over the trial; it is an infuriating and thorough indictment of the judicial system.
At times, the storytelling seems more cinematic with scenes feeling a bit disjointed instead of flowing together. Many members of the ensemble perform multiple roles, but with slight changes in appearance or the addition of a prop, it was clear when they made the shift.
However, the pacing and intensity picks up in the second act as the momentum builds towards tragedy. Wendell Scott has designed an open set that transitions easily for the various settings. Julia Gainey’s use of monochromatic colors for the costumes suggests the black and white television coverage of the early days of the civil rights movement. The addition of civil rights movement hymns and songs also complemented the atmosphere of the time as well as provided some much needed spiritual uplift.
Royal’s choice to add the actual images and voice recording of Mamie Till-Mobley describing the state of her son’s body when she first sees it, ratchets up the impact of Emmett Till’s murder. Perhaps what makes the event even more potent are the pictures hanging from chains that flank the stage’s back wall. Here, picture of victims of present-day racism: Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile. Their names and faces as important to remember as that of Emmett Till’s.
If Emmett Till had not, in the words of his mother, “disappeared into the blank page of his potential,” he would be the age of my parents. They’ve had children and grandchildren. The realization of that loss always hits me the hardest – it wasn’t just the loss of this young man’s potential, but also that of his legacy. We all lose something with this type of injustice in the world.
The Face of Emmett Till runs through June 17. For more information visit https://www.purelifetheatre.com/.