In August of 1955, two men abducted Emmett Louis Till from his uncle’s home in Mississippi to torture and murder him before dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. Till was 14 years old. The men who committed these atrocities justified themselves on the premise that Emmett had flirted with one of the men’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. The men believed that because Emmett was Black and the woman was White that their crimes were valid. While these racist lynchings occurred regularly during the Jim Crow era in America, Till’s murder specifically served as a springboard for the broader Civil Rights Movement that occurred during the 1950s and 1960s because of the advocacy for justice and equality from Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley. Till-Mobley made the unprecedented choice to hold an open-casket funeral for her badly mutilated son, nationally exposing the inhumanity of racism in Jim Crow America. For the next nearly 50 years of her life, Till-Mobley dedicated herself to perpetuating the Civil Rights Movement so that others might not suffer her same loss. In 1999, Mobley coauthored The Face of Emmett Till with playwright David Barr III to bring to life the story of her son, her loss, and the impact their story had on the trajectory of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

Pure Life Theatre‘s current production of The Face of Emmett Till has proven especially timely with the death last month of Carolyn Bryant (the accuser of Till) and the 2022 passing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which, despite its embarrassingly delayed approval after decades of debate, classifies lynching as a federal hate crime. Much like Mamie Till-Mobley herself, Pure Life paid little attention to politically charged conversation and allowed the story to speak for itself, highlighting the faces of the people victimized by racially motivated violence.

Wendell Scott’s scenic design sets the tone for simple and deeply poignant storytelling. Large, mirrored panels hang at the back of the stage with a declaration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. tattooed on the floor at the front of the stage: “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” On either side of the performance space, chains hang from ceiling to floor, holding the photos of Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and other victims of modern-day lynchings. The power of their witness was amplified by the contrast of a minimalist production design: Janaya Farrar has met the spirit of the performance with her straightforward lighting, while Julia Gainey’s monochrome costumes allow the actors to provide the bulk of the character development. Simple accessories exchanged off and on indicate the elapsing of time or a character change when an actor plays multiple roles. The uncomplicated production elements allow the strength of the ensemble to deliver the message of Till-Mobley’s work.

Tina Morris-Anderson as Mamie Till-Mobley formed the heart of the ensemble with Verlene Oates and Taufiki Lee as Emmett Till’s grandparents Alma and Henry Lee. Oates and Lee conveyed the fierce and nurturing care as both parents to Mamie and grandparents to Till. Morris-Anderson paid as honorable a tribute to Till-Mobley as any artist could hope to accomplish. She mirrored every facet of Mamie’s incredible love, tragedy, and courage with honesty and grace. Jireh Ijeoma played a perfectly balanced Emmett Till, mixing a young man’s desire to make his own way with the unique love and appreciation of a boy for his mother. Ijeoma also carried off Till’s speech impediment without creating a caricature of the person, which was admirable. Quinn Michael Gray also offered a strong performance for such a young actor, playing Till’s cousin Maurice, who may have been the only witness to the real encounter between Till and Bryant in this telling of events. John Ivey and Darius Hooks offered additional notable performances, Ivey as Till’s uncle Moses Wright and Hooks as the leader for the musical numbers. Ivey gave compelling performances in each of his scenes, but most significantly when he faced the men who came to his home and abducted his nephew, and again when he later testified against them in court. Hooks supported the story’s development with both tension and catharsis with his powerful leadership on the varied musical numbers throughout the performance.

Director Deb Royals has utilized effective production elements to highlight additional moments of critical importance. Royals includes original audio of Till-Mobley describing her first viewing of Emmett’s body after it was shipped home to Chicago as well as the photograph of Emmett in his open casket. Without being dramatically built up or overstated, Royals has captured the authenticity with Pure Life’s production that Till-Mobley sought when she allowed the world to literally witness her loss, so that at least another life might be saved.

It’s hard to capture how important The Face of Emmett Till is to the contribution of plays that have been produced in that past 25 years. The live portrayal of such significant historic events provides viewers with the opportunity to experience the tragedy of Till’s murder, and even more significantly to connect that devastating experience to the racially motivated crimes that are still committed today. The Face of Emmett Till ensures that the fight for justice continues and provides hope that change is possible with a commitment to the truth. Till-Mobley committed to educating others by sharing her truth. Pure Life Theatre mirrors this commitment with their honest portrayal of the figures whose stories they tell.

Pure Life Theatre’s production of The Face of Emmett Till continues at William Peace University’s Leggett Theatre through Sunday, May 21 and then will remount at Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Murphey School venue for five additional performances June 9-17 as part of Burning Coal’s Second Season series. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.