Tuesday, July 30, 2019

GUEST REVIEW 12: (2019-2020): TILL

“The Legacy of a Mother and Son”***

by Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

From time to time Theatre's Leiter Side posts reviews of Off-Off Broadway shows my schedule prevents me from seeing. If you are interested in reviewing Off-Off Broadway, please contact me so we can discuss. I hope you find the expanded coverage useful. Sam Leiter

I saw Till at the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) on what would have been the 78th birthday of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose brutal murder in 1955 ignited civil rights protests and is still in the news today. Just last week some Mississippi frat boys vandalized his memorial, as plenty others have done (consequently, a bulletproof replacement is in the works).

Synonymous with the story of Emmett is the story of his mother Mamie Till, who made sure the world saw the barbaric images of her son’s mutilated body by holding an open casket funeral, iconicized in this photograph. In this new musical with music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz and a book by Schwartz and DC Cathro, Till explores the life of Emmett and Mamie in the time leading up to his tragic death.
Dwelvan David and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Chillingly directed by NJ Agwuna, the production opens with somber vocalizations from a gospel quartet who prepare the audience for the impending devastation. The energy shifts as we meet young Emmett, played with spunky exuberance by Taylor A. Blackman.  He is a typical teen, up to typical shenanigans, and his bond with his mother is sweetly established. Mamie (an excellent Denielle Marie Grey) is hesitant to allow him to leave their Chicago home to stay with his uncle in Money, Mississippi, but reluctantly lets him make the ill-fated trip down South, where Jim Crow looms.
Taylor Blackman and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The immensely talented gospel quartet portrays the rest of the characters: Tyla Collier as Emmett’s grandmother Alma and others, Dwelvan David as Emmett’s uncle and others, Judith Franklin as Emmett’s cousin and others, Dwelvan David as Emmett’s uncle and others, Judith Franklin as Emmett’s cousin and others, and most notably, Devin Roberts, who seamlessly transitions back and forth between Mamie’s kind suitor and Roy, the sinister white store clerk who ends Emmett’s life. 

Roy and Carolyn Bryant are a white couple running a small store in Money. There are various versions of what happened to set off Roy: it was said that Emmett whistled at his wife, Carolyn. In Till, Emmett whistles during a game of checkers, which Carolyn mistakes as intended for her. When Roy learns of this, he abducts Emmett in the middle of the night; the boy’s lynched body is found days later.
Dwelvan David, Judith Franklin, Taylor Blackman, Ty Collier, Devin Roberts. Photo: Russ Rowland.
A few things happen to dilute the maximum impact of the tragic events. Emmett is played by an adult, his murder occurs offstage, and it can be construed that “fault” is attributed to Emmett’s uncle, who apologizes to the Bryants for his nephew’s behavior when the matter was already forgotten. White characters are portrayed by the African-American cast wearing half-masks and white gloves, a choice that will surely spark conversation. As a result of these elements, the gruesome depiction of white people mutilating a black child is left to our imagination, arguably a contrast to Mamie Till’s intent, but perhaps a safe decision for musical theatre.

The production ends with Mamie’s declaration (“Come Follow Me”) that her son will not be forgotten, along with projections of figures from Martin Luther King Jr. to President Barack Obama, which solidifies Emmett Till’s relevance in the history of the civil rights movement. But some of the most important things I learned about the Till legacy came from doing research for this piece instead of from the show itself, such as the subsequent trial (and acquittal) of Bryant, or the details on Mamie Till’s heroic efforts to fight for her son’s memory. 

I would have preferred more time being devoted to the aftermath of Till’s murder. But I left the theatre feeling privileged to have watched Emmett and Mamie’s story as a shared experience with other humans. to have been given that real-life connection in the room. The production’s guttural emotion, compounded with its political,  thought-provoking, and, needless to say, relevant, content, makes Till the show most likely to be remembered among this season’s NYMF offerings. 
Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
[Closed July 28]

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade. She lives in Sunnyside, Queens, with her husband Joe, kids Theo and Melody, and three cats. eorecchio@gmail.com @elyseorecchio