The play was written after interviews over the past decade with Till's family, teachers, classmates and eye-witnesses to the boy's brutal 1955 murder. African-American teen-ager Till was killed after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. His death is considered one of the flashpoints of the American civil rights movement.
Joseph Anthony Byrd, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, makes his Goodman debut as Emmett "Bo" Till.
Oz Scott, who directed for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Bayeza's sister Ntozake Shange, directs the production at Goodman's Albert Theatre. Opening night is May 5. Performances continue to June 1.
The cast also includes Deidrie Henry as Mamie Till, Emmett's mother; John Wesley as Moses Wright, Emmett's great uncle, a sharecropper and former preacher; Karen Aldridge as Lizabeth Wright, Moses' second wife, Emmett's grandmother's sister; Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. as Simeon, Moses' youngest and favorite son; Phillip James Brannon as Maurice, Moses' middle son, second oldest by his second wife; Morocco Omari as Wheeler Parker, Emmett's cousin and best friend from Argo, IL; Nambi E. Kelley as Ruthie May, a neighbor of the Wrights; Cliff Chamberlain as Roy Bryant, Caroline's husband, store-keeper, part-time trucker, former G.I.; Kristina Johnson as Caroline Bryant, Roy's wife, former local beauty queen; Chris Sullivan as J.W. Milam, Roy Bryant's half-brother, also a former G.I.; Kirk Anderson as Attorney J.J. Breeland/Elmer Kimbrell; and Brian McCaskill as Hon. Robert B. Smith, Special Prosecutor. In her script notes, playwright Bayeza describes Till as being written "in the footsteps of an old man; a memory; a mystery; myth; a deconstructed, reconstructed jazz play."
"Fifty years later, the tragedy of Emmett Till has lost none of its currency — and has assumed an emotional and political significance of almost mythic proportions," stated Goodman artistic director Robert Falls. "Ifa's new play is an emotionally and theatrically ambitious work in which we examine our own lives and actions through the prism of an epoch-defining moment in history. We produce this stunning new work at the Goodman with considerable pride."
According to Goodman notes, the play uses "factual accounts and creative interpolation" to tell the story of the brutal 1955 Mississippi murder of the 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett Till for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
"The decision of his mother, Mamie, to have an open-casket funeral fueled a life-long struggle to force America to confront its legacy of enslavement and Southern terrorism," according to Goodman. "Emmett's murder — and the national revulsion which followed — is believed by many to have sparked the modern civil rights movement, and remains one of the most pivotal incidents in a monumental era."
The playwright stated in notes, "Like many people, I knew the basic blueprint of Emmett's story and was profoundly affected as a youth on the frontlines of racial integration. In all of my research for this piece, there was very little to be found about Emmett — I wondered, who was this boy whose summer trip to Mississippi changed the course of an entire nation? There was such a difference between the way Emmett was described by William Bradford Huie in Look magazine — as a sexually aggressive, predatory thug — and the way his mother spoke of him, how he whistled because he stuttered. I thought that there was a real mystery play between those two worlds. Till is based on history, but I am drawn to and am highlighting the mythic and epic elements of this saga."
Till was developed in Goodman Theatre's 2006 New Stages Series, where it was seen in a sold-out reading, as well as at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's 2007 National Playwrights Conference.
Bayeza is an award-winning playwright, producer and conceptual theatre artist. Her works for the stage include Amistad Voices, Club Harlem and Homer G & the Rhapsodies, for which she received a Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays fellowship. She is co-founder of DBA Studios ("doing business artistically"), creating theatre-based work to encourage dialogue among races, cultures and people. The company's premiere production, Bayeza's hip-hop musical Kid Zero, with music by Harvey Mason, has been seen by over 12,000 public school students in Chicago, St. Louis and New York. She and her sister, Shange, are collaborating on a new novel, "Some Sing, Some Cry," which will be published by St. Martin's Press. She is a graduate of Harvard University.
The design team for The Ballad of Emmett Till includes Skip Mercier (set), Myrna Colley-Lee (costumes), Victor En Yu Tan (lighting), Richard Woodbury (sound), Kathryn Bostic (composer) and John Boesche (projections).
For more information visit www.goodmantheatre.org.