It is not so difficult to believe — in these times when we are re-examining just how far we have come, and still have to go, when it comes to fully integrating our country — that 50 years ago, the term “civil rights” wasn’t even heard of. But there would have been no doubt that blacks were still living well under the thumb of their white neighbors, once word of the murder of a young black boy from Chicago spread across the country. He was killed by torture, and finished off with a gunshot to the head. The crime he committed was that of whistling at a white woman. Her husband and his best friend, both white Southern men, felt it was their duty to “teach the boy a lesson.” In a confession by the two, after they were cleared of all charges in a courtroom, they described to a Look Magazine reporter just how and why Emmett Till met his death.
In a devastatingly powerful and dynamic one-man show, actor/playwright Mike Wiley recreates two small towns, more than a dozen characters, and the specifics of a racially led murder that was not so very uncommon in the rural Delta of southern Mississippi. We, as viewers, are made to understand, believe and, ultimately, judge the prevailing feelings of the time: that blacks and whites were divided by racial and class lines, and could never come together. And as long as any one Southern white male was alive to see to it, that is the way it would stay.
Wiley, who has his own production company, has entered into a collaboration with local EbzB Productions to bring Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till to the Deep Dish Theater in Chapel Hill, NC for a three-weekend run. Serena Ebhardt of EbzB directs this show, which saw its debut at Virginia State University. Ebhardt has written an EbzB play especially for Wiley, based on the “Brown v. Board of Education” decision that is a landmark of the civil rights movement. The collaboration for this show was formed while Wiley was still writing it.
The play only runs about 95 minutes including an intermission; but it is so packed with intense, tight characterizations and creatively-portrayed locales that we are rapt from the very first word. Those first words are spoken by Look reporter William Bradford Huey, as he begins to tell us what he learned from the men responsible for the death of 14-year-old Emmett “Bo” Till. Wiley recreates Huey and all of his characters with a depth and clarity that make each one readily identifiable, and as distinct as an entire cast of players could make them.
Accompanying and widening the scope of the show is a masterful creation of pictures from the real episode, as designed by Ben Davis. These photos show us Till’s mother, as she attempts to deal with her son’s death at the hands, she says, of Jim Crow. We see the courtroom, a cramped, steaming room filled to bursting with 12 white male jurors, witnesses, and curious onlookers. We see the two defendants, sitting at their table before the judge, each holding his toddler son. We become familiar with the small town of Money, MS, where Bryant ran a general store; the road to Sumner, MS, “A Good Place to Raise a Boy”; and the churning waters of the Tallahatchee River, where Till was first entombed. Under the circumstances, the fact that his body broke free of its bonds, floated on the river and was retrieved, can be nothing short of Providence. We are the witnesses to the body as it was sent back to his small town outside Chicago, and the heartbreak of his mother at his mutilation.
Wiley is a marvel to watch as the characters he portrays appear and disappear before us. The actor/playwright gives us a masterful performance with a depth of understanding and empathy that becomes only too real, as we also begin to feel the knot in the pits of our stomachs, and the disgust that such a crime could have gone unpunished. That the case has been reopened by the FBI in 2004, to seek out and indict the accomplices of both men, who are now dead, makes us understand the depth and breadth of how this travesty effected a nation. But to understand how it effects us, as those who must come to admit our own depths of prejudice in a new century, we must see this work. There is still a long way for all of us to travel before racial prejudice can be truly erased. To see and hear this superb performance cannot help but put each of us on the road to that good end.
EbzB Productions and Mike Wiley Productions present Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till Thursday-Saturday, June 15-17 and 22-24, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 18 and 25 at 3 p.m. at the Deep Dish Theater at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students and $13 seniors). 919/968-1515. Note: Deep Dish's storefront theater is located beside Branching Out. EbzB Productions: http://www.EbzB.org/ [inactive 10/06]. Mike Wiley Productions: http://www.mikewileyproductions.com/ [inactive 11/06]. Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/. Dar He: http://www.geocities.com/ebzb/darhe.html [inactive 11/06]. Study Guide: http://www.geocities.com/ebzb/tillstudy.pdf [inactive 11/06]. PBS (“American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till”): http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/till/. Bob Dylan Song (“The Death of Emmett Till”): http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/emmetttill.html.