BWW Review: Renaissance Theaterworks' THE BALLAD OF EMMETT TILL Pleads for Human Compassion

Renaissance Theaterworks (RTW) inhabits the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center and presents a true ballad--a dramatic narrative told over generations often set to music and dance--where this powerful tale recounts the life of 14 year-old Emmett Till. Over the thrid October weekend, Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett TIll visiblly moved Milwaukee audiences using an evocative stage designed by Madelyn Yee, ghost like in representing a church sanctuary centered on a coffin-like altar where a circular window, an archtectural rose window, a wheel from a cotton gin or perhaps star, was placed above the "altar." Arches, like skeletons of stained glass windows, framed both sides of the backdrop The innventive set combined with a dream cast imaginatively directed by Marti Gobel breathes life into this young boy's ballad.

While audiences may be familiar with Emmett Till's untimely death, they might be unaware of his joyfull and often normal life unveiled in this poetic retrelling. A young life cruelly taken too soon when the Chicago boy was murdered on an August night when he visitied his relatives in MIssissippi. RTW relives these historical details in the theater lobby that adds dimension and immense gravity to the drama. While Emmett Till has already been immortalized by Langston Hughes, Bob Dylan, and William Faulkner, Bayeza's humorous and poignant approach viscerally illustrates these events in the 1950's that ignited America's civil rights conscience.

Actor Marques Causey portrays Till with incredible vibarancy and youth unusual for an adult actor, and his believability as a 14- year old speaks volumes in this production even though the character stutters with charm. His lean frame embodies the adolescent persona with ease. In dual roles throughout the performance,, Ericka Wade captivates the audience in the role of Till's mother, Mamie, equally convincing in her reticence to let her son travel to Mississiippi where codes of behavior differed from Chicago and then displaying her unbelievalbe grief when her son's dead body was returned home.

Other cast member contribute through several roles to the lyrical quality of the drama, where words are repeated, or spoken by several characters simultaneously, or while dancing and singing integrate into the performance seamlessly. The magnificent all African-American, or black cast, also inlcudes Darrion Brown, James Carrington, Allen D. Edge and Marvette Knight.

Three live musicians, Brain Baumann, Jahmes Finlayson and John Nicholson play harmonica, percussion and guitar to accompany the ballad giving the production a resonant vitality that when the final 20 minutes close upon Till's young life with horror, the audience can respond with sorrow and perhaps submit to compassion. A word defined in the dictionary as "a feeling of deep sympathy for another's misfortunes and tribulations with a grave desire to alleviate the suffering."

While Emmett Till resounds with the unrest present between Northern and Southern politics, black and whilte, in mid-20th century America around the 1950's, the play also responds to the Black Lives Matter connection 60 years later in contemorary culture. However, the play, the production, transcends merely issues of race by pleading compassion for any other human being, the fate of humanity over the world.

At a discussion with Bayeza during the weekend the play opened, the playwright discussed the research and writing of Emmett Till, how meeting his classmates and cousins helped uncover his life. One of the cast members volunteered during the discussion that he believed the play related to the power and terror one human being inflicts on another-which could be between Christian/Non-Christian, Catholic/Protestent, Parent/Child, Partner/Partner (Today men experience spousal abuse at an equal rate to women, only because of cuttural norms, rarely speak of this), straight sexual identity over same-sex, healty/infirm, and master/slave, to name only a few examples, which can and do happen around the world in 2015.

The Ballad of Emmett Till details but one example of the indescribible inhumanity that can occur when one uses their power--in Till's situation two storng adults over one growing youth--to harm them, kill them or destroy their life. Incidents and immoral actions which occurr daily around the globe. And who as a parent will only feel compassion for Till's mother when her own child has so brutally and suddenly been torn from her life?

As Bayeza spoke to in her discussion, these details underscore the fact that Emmett Till's body somehow miraculously rose from the river bottom where it was thrown without a plausible explanation. Till's body was meant to remain buried, unfound, yet his body rose to the top of the river and was discovered. Bayeza and RTW allow Emmett through his brief life to rise again and again in Bayeza's play, which illustrates that one person can change the world. Emmett and his mother Mamie changed the world even through tragedy.

The 2ist century desperately needs the power of one, singular persons who will change the world, through whatever life presents. The world desperately needs people with compassion, a deep sympathy for misfortunes or indignities connected to a desire to alleviate suffering. Today, especailly among children, suffering exists, and Emmett Till was first a youth filled with promise and potential, where his unique personhood altered lives in the future beyond imagination.

In Renaissance's compelling and profound no-intermission evening, this must-see Ballad of Emmett Till pleads for unleashing compassion in Milwaukee that could reveal itself around the world. Compassion to abolish child and domestic abuse, agism, genocide, human trafficking, racism, sexism and religious fanaticism expreienced in Milwaukee's murders at a temple only a few years ago. Abolish all the other inhumanities, the unspeakable terrors people of all cultures inflict on each other, great and small, that appear every ordinary day. Perhaps circumstances to inspire desired actions, clearly demonstrated in the lives of Sojourner Truth, Clara Barton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa and Malala, that one person can still change the world to alleviate injustice and suffering so compassion will eventually overcome cruelty.

Renaissance Theaterworks presents The Ballad of Emmett TIill in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through November 15. A special presentation of Gwendolyn Rice's Brink play happens on Monday, November 13. For further information, special events, talkbacks or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan

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