Posted by: dougery | May 6, 2008

Emmett’s Voice Silenced By the Playwright

Simply put, the “Ballad of Emmett Till” is one of the most overdone puffed up pieces of theater garbage I have ever seen. Which is a shame because for much of the first half of the performance the audience is treated to a wonderful bit of storytelling full of uncompromising acting. Then the lights go dim and and when they return the playwright transforms a simple and brutal story of ignorance, racism and murder into a Grand Message piece so full of its own righteousness and self-importance that it is almost impossible to remember the stuttering boyish enthusiasm of our deceased protagonist. At some point early on in the second half Emmett’s voice is silenced and only the playwright’s remains, bombastic and abrasive.

Ifa Bayeza tells us in the notes to the performance that the “Ballad of Emmett Till” was born out of a single act, excised from a different play that never saw the light. This one act is devastatingly moving, a charming back and forth between Emmett and his mother, and bears a seed of tremendous promise. Yet the farther the spins away from this early movement the worse it becomes. I am told the play was originally an elegant and concise if not brutal 90 minutes. The play the audience was treated to last evening was closer to 3 hours and sags under the unfortunate extra baggage.

One need not look any further than the ridiculous pomposity of the play’s title. Why ballad? Ballads are romantic and simple, light and popular and short. I cannot think of a list of things that have less to do than the drama about to unfold on stage. Yes, there is singing, but the songs are much more spiritual, or at least attempt to be. The only romance in the play are the potential relationships snuffed out of Emmett’s future and as such are far from light or simple. I am not going to speculate on how the title could have been reworked, all I know is that the final product feels like it wants to be simpler, more minimal and that this conciseness would represent the core of this play much better.

The set is also emblematic of an odd minimalism gone amok. What could have been a very powerful piece of support has one or three too many additional elements. The large fragments of a massive wall are suspended at various angles across the rear of the stage and appear dangerously close to coming crashing down. Yet these same pieces also look formidable and forbidding. As a result, the combination of staunch impenetrability and inevitable peril is wonderfully evocative of the nature of race relations among many other themes present in the play. It is a terrific bit of minimalism but of course, like everything in this play, we couldn’t have it as is. No, we need huge projections crisscrossing the walls to bludgeon the audience with things they could surmise from the action on stage. Oh, well now i get it, they are out near a stream, because of all the rippling water lighting effects. I never would have gotten that from, say, the fact that the characters are all fishing. All the while the center of the stage spins round and round needlessly. Perhaps if this was some sort of metaphor for no matter how much things change, they always stay the same, but it can’t be since the playwright’s message is so adamant that the events of this performance have changed the world irrevocably for the better. So why must everyone just keep spinning in place then?

It is not just the set that is confusingly overcomplicated. Key details of the trial and legacy of Emmett’s murder are muddled via artistic, and I use the term loosely, flashbacks that splice moments of the lynching itself directly into the action of the trial. You can imagine the technique, corny lighting effects which single out characters who then bellow out their impassioned lines from that fateful evening, and when the lights return the characters are once more sitting down once more in the courtroom, cool and calm. The effect is to water down both the simplistic violence of the lynching as well as the convoluted rhetoric of the trial by having the two needlessly coexist in the same place. And all the while the shade of Emmett prowls the stage, constantly pleading with characters who cannot see or interact with him, his continued presence diluting the loss of such a cheerful kid. I can only imagine how powerful a second act we could have had if only Emmett had stayed buried and the only interaction we’d seen was the shudderingly powerful reaction of his mother upon seeing his mutilated face in the open coffin. Nothing is more tragic than a innocent voice silenced too soon.

And that is the true tragedy. A simple fun-loving boy is transformed from a foolish kid into a messiah. In the second half of the play Emmett is a gigantic megaphone but his voice is not his own, nor is it the voice of those who championed his cause, but a singular and rather shrill voice of the playwright convinced of the worth of her vision. Ifa Bayeza seems unsure whether or not she wants to discuss all of the heroes’ remarkable works inspired by this awful event or describe the despicable event itself and instead muddles the two together. Emmett Till may have well been a martyr, but he died without knowing what he would eventually become a part of. The saddest thing of all, and the point entirely missed by this trumped up production, is that Emmett never even had the chance to be the hero this play so desperately wants him to be.

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