A common lesson in most history classes, we all at some point learn the story of Emmett Till. Or do we? As revealed during the talkback by the playwright, and by a precocious question by a student in the audience, many current teenagers go through middle and high school without ever learning the story of the 14-year-old boy who, in 1955, was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta. Or of the infamous court case where an all-white jury declared the murderers of the young black boy not guilty. If our history books are indeed forgetting Emmett Till’s story, Mike Wiley’s one-person play Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till, presented by Raleigh Little Theatre and performing September 19-22, is an artful and timely reminder.
Beginning earlier this season with Hairspray, Dar He is a part of Raleigh Little Theatre’s series highlighting the 20th century black experience. And this particular history lesson is one well worth your time. Modern lighting and effects aside, a one-person play like Dar He harks back to the ancient art of storytelling. Our storyteller, in this case, is the adept Mike Wiley. A local gem, Mike Wiley is a nationally recognized NC-based actor with a number of original solo performances under his belt. Using newspapers and a Look magazine article from the period as the source material, Wiley has constructed a masterful documentary drama that is gripping and informative to the last moment. The spectacle here was watching as Wiley adeptly transformed between dozens of characters in moments. Black, white, Southern, Northern, male, female: Wiley gave a convincing performance for each and every person involved in the life and death of Emmett Till.
The murder, and very public trial, of Emmett Till is noteworthy largely because it gave light to the all too obvious, but often overlooked, secret policing of black behavior through acts of terror. We are told by one of the murderers that Mississippi is held together by “heritage…white heritage and black heritage.” And of course he means it in that order, stating in defense of his crime, “we got a heritage to protect.” Emmett’s simple act of teenage flirtation is thus deemed a dangerous act of upsetting the status quo. But to boil the murder of Emmett Till down to a simple act of evil would be a disservice to history. Wiley masterfully tells both sides of the story. To the point where we almost (almost) feel sympathy for the murderers in the aftermath of a tell-all magazine article reveals the gritty truth and damns them all over again. And we almost feel empathy for Juror Number 12 who seems more interested in going back to his daily routine than dealing out justice. But we never lose sight of the heroes, namely Emmett’s mother, who wouldn’t let the truth die, and Emmett’s uncle who bravely pointed out the murderers in court with the simple, “Dar he go.”
The lighting was simple and did not distract with only a handful of changes. Most of the play had dim lighting on the audience, making audience reactions to the play a part of the action. And indeed the audience was made part of the performance with some limited audience interaction, as when Wiley enlisted an audience member to stand-in for a juror to deliver the court’s verdict.
History has thousands of Emmett Tills: nameless men and women killed for no other reason than the color of their skin. Wiley’s play keeps the memory of these crimes alive with the hope that history will not repeat itself.
Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till continues through Monday, September 22 (a morning performance). For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.