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The Ballad of Emmett Till renews life at the Fountain

February 19, 2010

In Money, Mississippi 55 years ago, a 14-year-old African American boy is said to have whistled at a white woman. In the South, you couldn’t get away with that without severe consequences. A couple men beat the young man, shot him in the head, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River with a heavy cotton gin fan tied to his body with barbed wire. Three days later, two fishermen retrieved the remains of Emmett Till. 

This weekend, The Ballad of Emmett Till opens at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, barely six weeks after a man shot and killed the theatre’s director, Ben Bradley. Shirley Jo Finney stepped in to direct the play two days after Bradley’s death. 

“One woman came out of the first preview and said, ‘You know, I don’t like going to these types of plays because when I come out, I’m enraged, and I want to hurt someone. But I don’t want to hurt anyone. I realize this is a celebration of life, what I went through was to treasure each moment in life’.

Finney added, “It was a testament to the living, laughing, dying, and crying that we go through in celebrating Emmett because he is a hero. He was the spark. He was the life, the child being in all of us.” 

Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, decided the world would see her son’s face the way it came up from the river.  A photograph ran in Jet magazine and circulated among newspapers and magazines around the world. Playwright Ifa Bayeza discovered in her research that the outcry was as loud in other countries as it was in Mississippi. 

“If you look at Emmett’s story, not as a civil rights story alone, but as a human rights story, it takes that idea of imperiled youth into a broader conversation. Emmett is not just an icon in the civil rights movement, he represents disenfranchised youth throughout the globe. And this peril that he faced in 1955 is as perilous today for a youth of color in the United States or the streets of Baghdad or the streets of South Africa.”

I asked Finney why she believed the Emmett Till story had to be told to today’s audiences. Finney believes that technology and other factors force young people to grow up too fast.  “We are fractured, splintered souls. And it’s important because we’re so apart that we’re forgetting our own humanity, and I think it’s really important that it be told again and be told differently, not as a tragedy, but the point of view that you have to go in and ask, ‘What is my responsibility in this?’” 

Fountain Theatre’s late director, Ben Bradley, surprised Ifa Bayeza last summer with an invitation to mount the show much earlier than she’d expected. The opening of this production coincides with Black History Month. Bayeza laughed. “I’ll take any date that they offer me! Ben so wanted to do this work. His passion really moved the thing forward in December, and it feels like an appropriate tribute that we are bringing it to light now so soon after his passing as a thank you, as a blessing he bestowed on us.”

The Ballad of Emmett Till opens this weekend at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles and continues through April 3rd. You can hear some of my conversation with Shirley Jo Finney (L) and Ifa Bayeza (R) this afternoon on 89.3 KPCC.  

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Velma L. Robinson permalink
    February 20, 2010 6:36 pm

    This is incredible will this story be brought to anywhere else in the United States? Please email me if it will I would love to see this! I live in Texas please let me know outstanding job. God bless.



    • julianabroad permalink*
      February 22, 2010 8:18 am

      Velma, I’ve passed your question on to the director. So far, there’s no plan of taking it to Texas, but you are not the first to ask. Thanks,sj

  2. February 22, 2010 12:56 pm

    First: I sit on the board of directors of The Fountain Theatre. Now, with that out of the way – I attended the opening night of the production at The Fountain Theatre. It was thoroughly engaging and rendered Emmett’s story three-dimensionally. The play, under Shirley Jo Finney’s deft hand, brought Emmett Till to life with humor, attitude, and, interestingly, a first-person perspective. For those who want “The Ballad of Emmett Till” to appear in their town, I suggest you contact your local theatre and have them make arrangements to stage the play. “The Ballad of Emmett Till” is a MUST SEE.


  1. Fountain Theatre extends The Ballad of Emmett Till «
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