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excerpts from The Ballad of Emmett Till

by Ifa Bayeza

From the first it had been like a Ballad. –Gwendolyn Brooks The Ballad of Emmett Till is an ensemble play for six actors, exploring the final days in the life of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager who takes a fateful trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1955. Till’s murder and his mother’s subsequent decision to have an open-casket funeral are believed by many to mark the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement. The Ballad is a contemporary telling of Emmett’s story, a jazz integration of past and present, the events as seen from the perspective of the youth himself. It is the story of a quest, Emmett’s pursuit of happiness, of liberty, and ultimately of life. Emmett stutters. Like the African bata “talking drum,” his stammer is percussive, a rapid-fire repetition, without hesitation. His is not a stammer of insecurity, but of a physical impairment, which he has chosen to ignore and even to exploit. He is in a hurry to say everything. He mimics people—but remains himself. Mimicry is part of his teasing nature, but he is also trying on roles, futures. He is both a youth who never ages and an old soul, longing for death. Emmett whistles in a variety of ways. Those moments in the script are indicated with variations of the sign ((o)). He is accompanied by a troupe of fellow travelers, a quintet comprised of two women and three men, a chorus of shape-shifters, trapped between life and after. Lost souls, who cannot find their way, they cling to life and the shadows of it, awaiting trial, release, a hearing, justice, judgment. As they wait, Emmett entertains the group with scenes from his brief life, the group taking on the roles of his family, friends, tormenters—any souls that, like the quintet, have been drawn into his sphere. It feels like a coffin, the waiting. The landscape is cold, barren, the darkness close. The overlapping chorus of voices shifts easily from idle babble around a campfire to the tight, shape-note harmonies of a Negro spiritual, from the bent blues harmonies of a juke joint to the fast-moving currents of river water. A humming becomes a song, a psalm, a ballad. CHARACTER BREAKDOWN 2012 An ensemble of six Black actors plays multiple roles. While the actor who plays Emmett has a singular role, the other five actors in the ensemble will play varied roles evoking the memory of Emmett, family members, friends and enemies. The ensemble plays the following characters in order of appearance: EMMETT “BO” TILL, a fourteen-year-old visitor from Chicago, Illinois, an angel. MAMIE TILL BRADLEY, thirty-three, Emmett’s mother, who lives and works in Chicago. MAMOO, Emmett’s fair-skinned grandmother, Mamie’s mother. MOSE WRIGHT, Emmett’s great uncle, sixty-four, Mississippi sharecropper. WHEELER PARKER, sixteen, Emmett’s cousin and best friend from Argo, Illinois. HELUISE WOODS, fifteen, Emmett’s friend from Argo. SIMEON WRIGHT, twelve, Mose’s youngest and favorite son. MAURICE WRIGHT, sixteen, Mose’s middle son, second oldest by his second wife. MISS LIZABETH WRIGHT, Mose’s second wife, Emmett’s grandmother’s sister. RUTHIE MAY CRAWFORD, sixteen, a neighbor of the Wrights. JOHNNY B. WASHINGTON, an unemployed farm laborer, checker player. CAROLINE BRYANT, twenty-one, a storekeeper and wife, former local beauty queen. ROY BRYANT, twenty-four, Caroline’s husband, a storekeeper and truck driver. J.W. “BIG” MILAM, thirty-two, Caroline’s brother-in-law, Roy’s half-brother, storekeeper. H.L. LOGGINS, field hand and mechanic, one of Milam’s boys. The ensemble also creates various group tableaus, such as people on the train; dancers in the juke, viewers at Emmett’s funeral, spectators at the trial; random folk in Chicago and Mississippi. Cast assignments are as follows: BO plays Emmett Till: African American, late teens to early twenties, needs to be believable as a young teenager of fourteen, who is eager to become a man. He is dapper, slightly husky, his awkward adolescence masked by a slick, playful veneer. Despite a difficult stutter, he loves to tell jokes and sing doo-wop songs of his own invention. WOMAN 1 plays Miss Mamie, Simeon, Caroline: African American, age range from late twenties to early thirties, main character is Mamie Till Bradley, Bo’s mother. Also plays Simmy, Mose’s youngest son, age twelve, and Caroline Bryant, the white storekeeper and wife of Roy Bryant. Multiple roles call for an actress of broad range. A youthful, single mother who becomes a courageous warrior mother also plays a wry, earthy boy and a frustrated poor white storekeeper. WOMAN 2 plays Mamoo, Heluise, Miss Lizabeth: African American, age range forties to fifties, main character is Emmett’s grandmother, Mamoo; also plays teenager Heluise and Uncle Mose’s wife, Auntie Liz. Mature with youthful energy, she carries the weight of being an elder in the ensemble. May provide soulful underscoring gospel and Blues. MAN 1 plays Uncle Mose, Johnny B., H.L.: African American, fifties-sixties, mature with an elder’s bearing. His main character, Uncle Mose, sixty-four, is a Mississippi sharecropper and patriarch of a large family. Physicality should reflect a life of hard labor, his body sinewy but strong. A former preacher, he can still shout. Also plays the idler Johnny B and handyman H.L. MAN 2 plays Wheeler, Bo II, Roy Bryant: African American, early- to mid-twenties, main character is Wheeler Parker, sixteen, Emmett Till’s cousin and best friend from Argo, Illinois, where Emmett’s grandmother Mamoo resides. The main partner to Emmett, he matches Bo’s energy and youth, but he is both a little more mature and a little more country. Also plays part of Emmett’s imaginary doo-wop group and Roy Bryant, twenty-four, white storekeeper. MAN 3 plays Bo III, Maurice, Ruthie May, Milam: African American, mid-twenties to mid-thirties, main character is Maurice, sixteen, Emmett’s cousin, son of Uncle Mose, Southern sharecropper. He also plays Black female, Ruthie May, a southern teenage neighbor, and J.W. Milam, thirty-two, white, Roy Bryant’s half-brother. Multiple roles span a broad range from a sympathetic, competitive cousin, to vixen to an aggressive, malevolent racist. Also plays part of Emmett’s doo-wop group.

SETTING: Minimalist and fluid. Scene changes suggested by actor transformations and light. Setting may reflect vestiges of Southern agrarian life. Scattered about—bales, boxes, old suitcases, crates, pails, paint buckets, a wheelbarrow, sacks, ladders and tarps, tree stumps, tools, machine parts. Palette: beige, brown, bark; grays and black, shades vs. color, dust to dust, ashes to ash. Fabric: worn cotton, linen, straw, denim, canvas. Floor of dirt, cotton seed. Scrim montages perhaps suggest passage of time, emotional states, torrents of water into torrents of headlines and media images—jagged, torn, ripped, distorted. Interspersed perhaps are random pages from a teenager’s school notebook. SOUND: The Ballad is laced with the song of African American vernacular culture, woven throughout a spontaneous, erupting a capella soundscape reflecting the optimism, faith and coherence of post-World War II Black America. While not a musical, the drama is infused with the music of our lives, from the street corner doo-wop to the R&B sing-along, work song to juke joint blues, gospel chant to Negro Spiritual. As Miss Brooks wrote, it always appeared as a ballad. The occasional rhyming couplet is intended to evoke the traditional folk idiom, both advancing the narrative and suggesting the movement of myth through time. Setting the stage for the role of song in the coming Civil Rights era, The Ballad is the Call awaiting Response. The prelude song may be used in part or whole. Musical charts are available upon request and may be employed or adapted at the director’s discretion.

PRELUDE ENSEMBLE: Come on let me tell yuh bout the tale of Emmett Till, Come on let me tell yuh bout the tale of Emmett Till, They tried to break his body, but could not break his will, Put his body down, but couldn’t break his soul, Put his body down, but couldn’t break his soul, Sank him in the river, and yet his body rose, His mama was all broke up when they took her only son, I say, his mama was all broke up when they took her only son, She say leave the casket open so all can see just what they done! Come on let me tell yuh bout the tale of Emmett Till, Come on let me tell yuh bout the tale of Emmett Till, They put his body down, but his soul is risin’ still, Come on let me tell yuh bout the tale of Emmett Till, You gonna hear this story, someday, some way, somewhere, I know you will, oh oh oh oh ohh I know you will, Emmett Till, Emmett Till, Emmett Till . . . MAN 1: Time was when the death of one Black boy counted for somethin . . . SCENE 1. SOLO PREENING—BRIM UPTURNED Emmett as “Bo” turns. He is perhaps by himself, looking in the bathroom mirror, or on the street corner with his buddies. BO: New suit . . . traveling shoes The rumble of the el The sounds of the city Awakening Call me Bo! Bub-Bobo! Emmett Louis Till, fir-first class! The Birds announce my arrival Thou didst make me Show me my rival! Brim upturned Blond Panama straw With a green exotic feather Still say caw New pants Never been worn White buck shoes! Not a scuff on ‘em New shoes! Man! White bucks! D__m! Uncle Mose say, “Uh uh uh Mississippi? This is someone you should know. This my nephew, Buh-BoBo!” “So, so, so,” she say. “So so how long you gonna be around?” Uh cuh-cuh—Uh Uh ck-cuh-uh ck-cuh cuh, uh ck-ck uh uh uh ck cuh cuh-cuh— ((o)) A couple of weeks . . . . . . Okay, okay, Oh oh oh oh KAY! So you’re short and you stutter. Duh-deal with it or let it get in your way. Scene 2. Ensemble—Talk MAN 1 as PHOTOGRAPHER: (miming picture-taking) Boy! Will you stand still? Stop talkin’. BO: Man, talkin’ is my favorite th-thing tuh do. I love tuh-taw-taw-talk. Talking to people, talking bout people, talking back to people, talking to myself. Negroes love

tuh-talk. WOMAN 1: Talking loud! BO: Sweet talk. WOMAN 2: Fresh talk. MAN 2: Fast talk. MAN 3: Talkin’ shit. BO: That, too! Tryin’ to find words. WOMAN 2: I’m just sayin’. BO: I’ll talk to anybody. MAN 2: Nobody. BO: Everybody, even you. MAN 2: That’s damned white of you. BO: We got a natural poetry. MAN 1: Nigga please. WOMAN 1: Ironic. BO: Don’t make me come up there! MAN 3: Concise. BO: Well! WOMAN 2: Descriptive. BO: Fit to be tied, I’m fittin’ tuh go. MAN 1, MAN 2 & MAN 3, BO, WOMAN 1, WOMAN 2: Talk, talk talking in tongues, Gallu nda gallu gallu nda, Speakin’! (translation: so many cities) Talk, talk, talking drums, Kah ka kah kuh-kaka KAH! Into bein’! (translation: everywhere) Talk, talk talking in tongues, Ndunnya ndunnya ndah! Speakin’! (translation: so many people) Talk, talk, talking drums. Into bein’! BO: Mo biya ka bo! (pronounced: Mo bee yah KAH bo; trans: Daylight came) ENSEMBLE: Life! BO: The way it feels fresh in your mouth, The taste of it! Rhymin’, signin’, signifyin’, cryin’, sighin’, TESTIFYIN’! Tellin stories! MAN 1: Like it is. MAN 2: Lies. BO: Sometimes. WOMAN 2: Tales! ENSEMBLE: Tall tales! MAN 1: Tell the truth now. BO: Wisecrackin’, lip smackin’, gum-poppin’, non-stop TALK! ENSEMBLE: Tell it! BO: The Ballad of Emmett Till. My life was short, but not uneventful . . .

SCENE 3. MISS MAMIE & BO—ST. LAWRENCE AVENUE, BO’S HOME. Woman I as Mamie and Woman 2 as Mamoo inside while Bo and best friend and cousin Wheeler are hanging out front. WOMAN 1 as MISS MAMIE: Bo? WOMAN 2 as MAMOO: Bobo? BO: Miss Mamie, Mamie Bradley sits on her front porch. MAMIE: I gave him the ring. He— MAMOO: Never took it off. BO: Dressed for church, lace doily round her neck, high heeled shoes. My mama is beautiful. Big heart-shaped face, little dimples in her cheeks, round brown eyes. MAMOO: The look out. BO: With Mamoo, my grandma, the other look out. MAMIE: Didn’t like him goin’ too far. MAMOO: Cottage Grove. MAMIE: Avenue. BO: Like I don’t know what that is. MAMIE: I was always too protective of him. After that breech birth almost killed the both of us. Came into the world feet first, wanting to stand up. MAMOO: Butt first. MAN 2 as WHEELER: Showin’ his ass. EMMETT: Right there where you can kiss. MOSE: Come with a sense of humor. MAMIE: Thirteen hours, I was screamin’ with laughter! BO: So Mama got a new boyfriend. She wants to see if he’s really the one. MAMIE: Already went through one bad marriage. BO: Try three! Gene was next. Genie. MAMIE: This one had to be right. BO: So she wants me to go on a road trip. With the both of them. MAMIE: And cousin Thelma from Detroit. BO: And from there to Omaha-ha-ha-ha-hah, ha-ha-hah! WHEELER: (teasing) Outta the neighborhood. It’ll be better. BO: “Avenuuuuue.” Away from all my friends. WHEELER and MAMIE: Great outdoors! BO: Here we go. MAMIE: I worried about his bones being soft, you know. After the— MAMIE and BO: Polio? Oh my word. Polio! BO: It was like a l-l-l-long case of the FLU, man. Took her l-l-longer to get over it than muh-me. MAMIE: Will he walk? Will he talk? So still, barely breathing on his own. But he’s tough, my boy. BO: Naw–naw–naw–naw. I-I-I-I’m t-t-the-telling you, it ddidn’t even hurt. Felt. Tuh- tingling in mmy leg n-n ARMS like they was ss-sleep. It was sorta fuh-funny tuh-till I

cuh-couldn’t mmmove my SIDE! Muh-mama, she she she she s-s-say— MAMIE and MAMOO: It’s all right. You rest now. BO: But I-I sssaid no w-Way! Everyday I TRIED. Buh buh buh-But I c-ccouldn’t mmmake muh-my w-words. When when W-W-w-w-w-w-w-One day, ((o))! Uh whistle come

out. MAMOO: Go on now, a whistle. MAN 2 as WHEELER: Get outta here. MAMIE: We both laughed at that. From that day on, our secret sign. He would use it to clear up the stutter. BO: Shoot, I stutter cuz I talk fast. I’m from the Southside. Sssssmooth with the talk, cuh- cool with the walk Emmett Louis Till, fir-fir-first class. MAMIE: He lost no time making up for lost time. SsssTumbled into his teens with a bang. MAMOO: Compensating for his stammer with a swagger and a stare. Using his eyes. Those beautiful eyes . . . MAMIE: Not quite brown. Not quite hazel. Golden. Opal. MAMOO: Like two copper pennies. MAMIE: He liked money. MAMOO: Money and fine things. MAMIE: He’s a Leo, you know. MAMIE and MAMOO: A Leo cannot live without pride. SCENE 4. UNCLE MOSE Mose enters slowly. As the rest of the ensemble gathers round Mose, Bo steps aside. BO: So Uncle Mose come for a visit. MAN 1 as MOSE: Mose Wright. BO: Preachuh! (singing) If ever a more righteous man, I ask you to show me he, Than Mose Wright, Preachuh, from Money, Mississippi. No kiddin’, man, I can’t make that stuff up! MAMIE, MAMOO and WHEELER: (whispering) Preachuh, preachuh . . . MOSE: Everybody call me Preachuh. BO: Uncle Mose saved me! Halleluliah! He come out to Argo, where I used to live 'fore I moved to the city. Argo, Illinois. They still growin’ Victory Gardens and it’s nineteen

fifty-fiiiive! (as if he were a human scale) Chicago—Argo, Car—Cow, Groove—Goat,

Fast n Un-cuh, ENSEMBLE: Uncle MOSE! WHEELER: (drawing Bo back into the family) You know you wrong. MAMIE: Uncle Mose wasn’t preaching any more but people still looked to him for the

Word. He came up to deliver a eulogy. BO: Uncle Mose. I’m tellin’ you, Uncle Mose is a hunnud years old. He-he-he comes for a visit. Took, took two years! Lemme tell bout Uncle Mose, Uncle Mose actually

came up to marry off his last daughter. It took him so long, he delivered a eulogy

instead. Mose invited me to go fishing. BO and MOSE: Fish—fishin’ adds a day to your life, son. As a consequence, I go fishin’ every day. BO: Uncle Mose was Aunt Mattie’s father, my aunty, mother of my former best friend, Wheeler. Think cuz he grew four inches, he too high and mighty. They all lived next

door to Mamoo, my grandma. Wheeler’s mama is— ENSEMBLE: Sistuh to James. MOSE: Who is married to Dee who is sister to yoah grandmamma Mamoo and her sister Lizzie, who is my second wife, yoah granmama’s— ENSEMBLE: Baby sistuh. BO: I’m related to everybody in Argo. My family is what you call tight— ENSEMBLE: Tight-knit. MAMOO: Lot of double first cousins. BO: Mamoo ‘sponsible for bringing half of em up here. All workin’ for Argo Starch. Mama branched out. Moved to Chicago. Even after that, we were in Argo every week! MAMIE: Goes to church every Sunday. BO and MAMOO: Argo Temple of God in Christ. BO: Founded in my grammama’s livin’ room. How I’mo nuh-not guh-go? MOSE: Takin’ my grandson, Wheeler. Cain’t b’lieve my baby girl gotta boy this big. BO: I found out Wheeler was goin to Mississippi, I decided! I’m goin’! SCENE 5. MISS MAMIE AND BO MAMIE: You don’t decide what you do. I decide what you do. Bo with his doo-wop chorus, Man 2 and Man 3 as Bo II and Bo III physicalize the stutter. BO and MAN 2 and MAN 3 as BO II and BO III: Cuh-come on, Mama! MAMIE: Emmett Till, you must think I’m made of money. Just cuz you ask, I’m supposed to say yes? I just bought you a motor bike. BO: It’s broke. Battery needs fixin’. MAMIE: I just bought you that bike. MAN 2 as BO II: I wore it out. MAN 3 as BO III: Everybody wanted to ride it. MAMIE: Don’t you want to go on this vacation with me? All the BOs: Come on, Mama. BO: You don’t really want me on that car ride. BO III: With Gene. BO II: Genie. BO: You don’t need a chaperone. All the BOs: I trust you. MAMIE: I don’t want you to go off down there. By yourself. BO III: I go to Argo by myself. BO: Go downtown Chicago tuh tuh tuh tuh pay your store bills by myself. BO II: Duh-did this laundry by myself. BO: (Duh-duh don’t even know how to use your own washing machine.) MAMIE: What did you say?—Mississippi is not downtown, Bo. It’s down South. BO: Wheeler’s goin’. BO II: Simmy and Maurice be there. BO III: Curtis and Robert. All the BOs: All of the fellahs! MAMIE: Wheeler’s two years older. BO: So?! Cur-Cur-Curtis is the same same age. BO III: Simmy’s two years younger. BO II: Great outdoors? All the BOs: Come on, Mama. It’ll be fun. MAMIE: Fun, that’s all you think about. If I know Mose Wright, he wants people down there to work. Not to messa’ round. BO: Come on Mama, Please! I promise I’ll— MAMIE: What?! Stretch those curtains like Mamoo asked you? BO: Fixed dinner every night. BO II: Almost. BO: Cleaned your room. BO II: Weeded the garden. BO III: Swept the whole house! MAMIE: Brushing the dirt up under the rug, like last week. This isn’t the movies, Bo. Some jokes don’t play in real life. BO: Baked you a cake. MAMIE: Almost blew up the house. BO: N-n-n I-I-I put that linoleum in. MAMIE: A hundred years ago. BO: Buh-but look how good it still look. All the BOs: Come on Mama, please? MAMIE: Maybe I should let you go down there. Teach you the value of the life you have. Color Teevee . . . New Kah. BO: Vinyl top . . . leather interior—Cuh-Co-signed in my own name. MAMIE: I don’t know why I did that. Mississippi’s not the same as here, Bo. It’s another place. Different. The white people are different. You don’t speak unless you are

spoken to. And you say, “Yes Sir, yes Ma’am,” when you are. BO: I already do that. I—I know how to be polite. MAMIE: I’m not talking about that! If a white woman even approaches, you got to move off the sidewalk. All the BOs: You serious? BO: That the silliest thing I ever heard of. MAMIE: I’m very serious, you hear me? ENSEMBLE: You. Do Not. Look. At them. BO: Yeah, okay. Mail come yet? MAMIE: Are you even listening to me? BO: May may mayb-be I-I duh-duh-DUH-double paid the bill at the Fair Store . . . Hey, you’ll have a credit. You could use it to get some stuff for my trip. MAMIE: No. I said, no. As Mamie exits, Man 2 steps beside Bo and becomes Wheeler while Man 3 becomes Curtis. SCENE 6. DOO-WOP—DUH-DON’T LOOK Bo and his cousins Wheeler and Curtis at the fair, girl-watching. BO: Okay, I promise, I won’t look at them . . . Look, my eyes are closed. “Duh-Don’t look.” Mah-mama duh-don’t know. I’m from Chicago! Girl watchin’—in the summuh? ((o)))! Wear a brother out! You die and go to heaven every day! Ow! A national pastime—the girls bloom like flowuhs inna summuhtime! Man! You got— two-lips! MAN 2 as WHEELER: Roses. MAN 3 as CURTIS: Daffodils. BO: Bluebells. WHEELER: Buttercups. BO: Venus fly traps! Woman 2 enters as Heluise Woods, church girl, a bit older than Emmett, but excited. He reminisces, recreating the scene. BO: I step out. Hair pressed flat, pants line pat. A ripple and a sheen, with a dip that’s mean! . . . I met this guh-guh-girl, last May. Of of of of all play-places, Argo! Church

went up to a carnival . . . WOMAN 2 as HELUISE: Heluise, Heluise Woods. BO: Hello-oh-oh Heluise! Okay, okay, okay, I bought a ticket at the carnival to ride on the

thing. We was standing in line, getting on two by two, Noah’s ark. I’m movin’ right

along beside her, counting to make sure we we we end up together in the same car.


CURTIS: Curtis, baby! BO: I mean Curtis?! WHEELER: Jumps the line. Bo pushes both cousins out of the way, bumping Heluise. BO: I-I-I push past him n just make it—Puh-POW! As the cousins retreat, Bo and Heluise settle in the Ferris wheel chair. BO: And I’m sittin’ right next to her! Our own Kah, an aerial carriage. Chains rattle the seat. Then then then it started started up. Up up up we went, up up up we goin’. She

draws close. One hand round my, round my girl and you’re praying yes, yes, yes and

it stops at the very top. The stars out, carnival lights below, the Kah swinging in the

breeze. Wooo-Weeee! Just her and me—and— Just as Bo puts his arm around Heluise, Mamie appears, a pop-up between them. MAMIE: Mama. BO: Wants to go on a road trip. I tell you, I had to write the girl a letter. BO and HELUISE: Dear Heluise. I am not coming out in Argo Saturday because my mama— BO: Want(s) me to go tuh tuh— MISS MAMIE and BO: To Detroit. As Mamie fades from view . . . BO: I liked when I was out there and we went out to that carnival. Cutest little thing. Beautiful brown skin. Like a piece uh milk chocolate. Long pretty hair. Bo improvises a song, debonair in his mind, singing to Heluise as she starts to walk away. BO: Met a little girl named Heluise, Wrote her a letter to be my squeeze, Sorry baby, I can’t come to town, But I sure wanna see you girl, next time I’m around, Remember M, remember E, Put em both together so you’ll remember me. E- M - M and a E-T-T, Hey, pretty baby, remember me, Emmett Louis Till from Chicago, Buh-buh-but you can call me Buh-Buh-Buh-Bobo . . . (becoming the storyteller again.) . . . Wanna know the truth? HELUISE : We finished the ride, I stood up there. All he could say was— BO and HELUISE: Bye. BO: Now how how how not not cool could you be? Haven’t heard back from her yet. Only

been three months. But I will. Put two carnival tickets in the envelope. HELUISE: Labor Day weekend. BO: Church picnic. You know a cat’s got nine lives. SCENE 7. SHOPPING. THE FAIR STORE. MAMIE: I can’t teach him to be a man. BO: I kept workin’ on her. Got Uncle Mose to talk to her. MOSE: (sitting on the porch back at the house) I guess I could use another nephew or two. A summer in the South to make him strong. BO: Fingers all bent over like a tree. “Fish-fish—” MOSE and BO: Fisherman’s Paradise. MAMIE: Growing up too fast. MAMOO: Hair on his lip, that’s new. MAMIE: Leaning on the glass counter. MAMOO: Stand up straight, Emmett. MAMIE: I worried about his bones being soft. MAMIE and MAMOO: Stand up straight, Emmett. BO: Mah-Mama, that’s my leeeeeeannnn . . . MAMIE: He still favored that leg. He spent all of this money—insisting on a— MAMOO: What? BO: What do you think? MAMOO: What you need uh? The pictures? New wallet? And—new shoes? Hedy Lamarr or Dorothy Lamour? BO: Mah! Kicks! MAMIE: New shoes? White shoes? MAMOO: Bo?! BO: White Bucks! Like Louie, Louie Jordan! . . . Buh-Bo Diddley? . . . Johnnie Ace! Puh-Pat B-Boone! I know you know THAT one! Bo begins dancing the bop badly with Mamie, Mamoo looking on. MAMOO: Humph, hummin’ . . . MAMIE and BO: You made, Ump-UMP! Me cry, Ump-UMP! MAMOO: Singin’! MAMIE and BO: When you said, Ump-UMP! Goodbye, Ain’t That a Shay-ay-ay-ame? BO: Duh dancin’ the Bop, Mama, the bop. MAMIE: Right in the department store. MAMOO: I can’t do that stuff . . . White buck shoes “like Pat Boone.” I don’t know what you think you’re gonna do with them in the fields of Mississippi. MAMIE: We’d part, ain’t it uh They stop dancing, Mamie sobered by her mother’s admonition. BO: I got loafers for that. Bucks for dress. Travelin’ shoes. New socks, too. MAMIE: New socks! Emmett! BO: Can’t wear new shoes with old socks. WHEELER: Suede kicks with cotton. BO: White shoes with white socks? MAMIE: And what you need with three toothbrushes? MAMOO: Two for the smile. BO: One for the soles . . . Mah! BUCKS! Bo pirouettes producing a wide-brimmed Panama hat with a bright chartreuse parrot

feather Tuh tuh tuh BRUSH em. B-b-bristles got to be soft though. MAMIE: What am I going to do with you Bobo? What on earth? ENSEMBLE: Where did you get that hat? What kind of a hat is that? BO: Brim upturned, Blond Panama straw, with a green exotic feather, still say caw! Caw, cuh-CAW, CAW! Found the feather right there on the sidewah— MAMIE: Just where did you get all of this money? BO: A woman does not ask such things of a gentleman . . . Made it runnin’ groceries. Errands and stuff. Just stuff . . . Okay, twenty-five from you. Twenty from Gene—he

GAVE it to me! . . . MAMIE: How much do you have altogether? BO: A nickel and a nail. Duh-don’t worry bout it. I set aside how much I’mo spend. MOSE: Strong. MAMIE: I had spoiled him. MOSE: And strong willed. MAMIE: My only son. MOSE: Stocky as a stevedore. Part lion, part bird. BO: Two part god, one part man! MAMOO: Humble yourself. WHEELER: G-git on your knees. BO: Puh-puh-please! Give me a break! MAMOO: He ain’t from the South. BO: I’m from the South Siiiiiide! ENSEMBLE: Chicago! BO: Just turned—fifteen. MAMIE: Fourteen. I decided. BO: I was goin’! MOSE: It’ll be good for him. MAMIE and BO: Good for both of us. ENSEMBLE: Freedom! BO: Emmett Louis Till, first class! SCENE 8. DEPARTURE—THE RING Early morning, St. Lawrence Avenue, the house stirring. MAMIE: . . . I gave him that ring. It was just layin’ in his jewelry box . . . he was looking for some cuff links and picked it up. I told him. Your father was— BO: Louis Till! MAMIE: Died on the European front, 1945. BO: A veteran of the African and Italian campaigns . . . is this the ring? MAMIE: Yes, that’s the ring, with your father’s initials on it. BO: L.T., Casablanca, 1943. MAMOO: . . . Messages from the brain. MAMIE: From the brain to the muscle. MAMOO: The messages stop and the muscles go— MAMIE: Dead . . . Polio? No no no no no no no no no . . . muh-my Emmett’s going to be okay. He is a fighter! He loves life! My Bo. He wasn’t gonna be tall. But he was

handsome. Golden in the summer. And proud. I couldn’t get him to go in the water. BO: I’m a Leo. MAMIE: He’d say. MAMIE, BO, and MAMOO: Cats don’t like water. MAMIE: But really it was that leg. BO: Long pants make everybody equal . . . MAMIE: He hated to get up early, hated to be awakened. Worn out by his adventure in dreams. The light piercing his eyes. He was always so rude in the morning. Hating to

be brought back from sleep. Sometimes I would have to go up there . . . two or three

times. Emmett? MAMOO: Wake up! You’re going to be late. Emmett Till, don’t make me come up there! You the one wanted to go so bad. Clompin’ around in those shoes. MAMIE: You’re gonna miss your train. MAMOO: Got your bags? Your money? Stand up straight. Wiggle your toes and ankles. BO: Mah, I had the weirdest dream last night. MAMIE: What was it? BO: Cain’t remember now. Oh wait! Yeah. Dreamed—I dreamed a star fell from the sky. Like a—m-mountain, it toppled over and struck me and that the boulders caught my

feet (so’s) I couldn’t move my legs. And. I got scared. Then this (strange) man came

out out (of nowhere, out of a) a glaring (white) white light. A stranger. And he gave me

(some) some water to drink, Calmed me down . . . And . . . and . . . and I wasn’t scared.

No no no no more . . . then he set my feet upright . . . MAMIE and MAMOO: Dream of the Seeker. BO: Kept going, though. The sky cracked thunder and day, DAYlight dis-disappeared! Then it began to rain . . . and I looked . . . looked . . . looked around and and . . . and . . .

Everywhere the rain fell it it . . . (it) turned to ashes. MAMIE: You know how dreams are (sometimes) . . . probably that corn you insisted on eating last night—too much pepper. BO: It’s my specialty. Pepper Corn. Scene shifts to train station an hour later. MAMIE: You’re going South! MAMOO: Be respectful. Humble yourself, I say. MAMIE: And close your collar. BO: M-Mah! Be cool. It it’s August! MAMIE: Bo! MAMIE and MAMOO: Bobo! MAMIE: You didn’t kiss me. MAMIE and MAMOO: How do you know I’ll ever see you again? BO: Oh Mama! Why you wanna say something like that? Here, keep my watch. I won’t need it where I’m goin’ . . . want some bubble gum? MAMIE: Take care of your teeth down there. MAMOO: Especially with all those sweets. BO: Jujubees, two buck teeth, five red licorice and a fireball. Goin’ Mississippi, takin’ sompim for the road! MAMIE and MAMOO: What about your ring? BO: Naw, I’mo keep that. Sh-sh-show it off to the fellahs. Duh-Don’t get gushy, Mama. I’ll be back foah Labor Day! Say! “City of New Orleans!” Eight-eight-eight-eight? Eight

oh one?! Bo rushes to board the train. MAMOO: He almost missed the train. Suitcase, silver thermos. MAMIE: Shoebox of Aunt Mattie’s fried chicken under his arm. MAMOO: Holdin’ onto that hat, the ticket flappin’ in the wind. MAMIE: Got on the last car. MAMIE and MAMOO: Write to me! BO: I return to you, a man! Don’t forget to fix my bike—!


WOMAN I as MAMIE I ON THE WITNESS STAND. The first time I saw it, it was still in the casket. Then I saw it later after it was placed on a slab. I positively identified the body. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. I looked at the face very carefully. I looked at the ears, and the forehead, and the

hairline, and also the hair. And I looked at the nose and the lips and the chin. This is a picture of the body as I saw it, yes. This is the way I saw him the second time. He had his clothes put on his body then.

When I saw him the first time he didn’t have on any clothes. Was the first view I had of my son there before the clothes were put on the body like

in the photograph shown here. The face, yes. Was it the same as when I saw him the first time when he had no clothes on? No, Sir. This is the way I saw him the second time. The first time I saw him, he had a

hole in his head up here and that was open. And he had another scar over the left or

right eye. I can’t remember just now. And he had a gash in his jaw and his mouth was

open and the tongue was out. That is the first time when I saw him without clothes

on. But from this picture here, it seems like his mouth has been closed and that gash

was sewn up and that place in his forehead up there has been closed up. That is the

way it looks to me.

The photograph here is a better picture of him than the way it was when I first saw

him, that’s right.

When I first saw him, he had been shot through the left side. Yes, Sir. Daylight . . . WOMAN 2 as MAMIE 2 HER INTERIOR THOUGHTS. I said, What is this, some kind of creature from outer space? I don’t want that body. That can’t be mine. Skin, white, white as snow and this thing gigantic, but . . . I can’t . . . look. Look! At his feet and and and I can identify his ankles. Those are my ankles. Those are my

knees. I know those knees. Castrated? But no . . . I should be grateful for that? . . . Naked . . . Come on up, come on up . . . His face . . . Look for his ear. Sort of curled up and not attached to the face. We have the

same ears. You can use that for a clue. His . . . face . . . Bo! Mouth open. Teeth, the few left, those are Emmett’s teeth. His nose just— all busted up, his head gapped gaped gapped open, and and and . . . His face . . . Pieces, I could only find him in pieces. No, sir, no. His left eye gone, and the right eye just lying down on his cheek. But the one eye that’s

left, that’s definitely his eye. I could tell by the color . . . that that that that that that that’s

ssss . . . Emmett’s?

This . . . is . . . This is . . . my son.

Then a light come in through the window. As if the sun had just broke through the

clouds . . .

On the right side . . . I could see daylight . . .


Bo enters in his Sunday best. He surveys his life: Mamie sitting on the porch, Mamoo

beside her, Wheeler leaning on a post, Mose gazing at the field. He ambles among

them, unseen.

BO: Daylight! New suit . . . traveling shoes. A dog barks in the distance. The rumble of

the El. The sounds of the city. Awakening. To breathe, smell, taste, touch . . . The

breeze on your face by the lake, the wind . . . Oh I would sleep. Yet, awakened from

the dream, I weep. For every battle I did win, the world would collapse again . . . I

walk in the night fallen, the sky on my head.

Mamie senses his presence.

MAMIE: Emmett Till . . . You will live forever. When you died—the world woke up!

People streamin’, marchin’, fightin’ for justice. Freedom Summer. Montgomery, Selma,

Birmingham—Righteousness Rolled Down like a Mighty Stream! It was like the river,

unleashed, hurling in a wave of glory, changing forever, everything in its path!

He takes her hand to dance.

BO: I would trade all the riches that the world evuh knew,


BO: Fuh just one moment with you,


BO: An ole greasy meal on a hot afternoon,


BO: Sittin on a warm summer stoop . . . listenin’ to your favorite rekkud, swingin’ wid

your girl—exchange it all for one moment—of—LIFE!

They halt.


BO: To smell, taste, touch. But . . . Wherever I set my feet, there is Death.

MAMIE: Immortality.

MOSE: Justice.

ENSEMBLE: A new world.

Warily, he steps toward the light before him.

BO: It is warm?

MAMIE: It is warm.

BO: There is light?

MAMIE: There is light.

BO: It is safe?

ENSEMBLE: It is safe.

BO: It is done?

-End of Play-

Note from the Playwright

Sonia Sanchez, great American poet, was a respondent to an early draft of the work. She was insistent that I probe further and challenged me to be able to defend every line. I had to get it right, for this is a sacred story. If, as Du Bois stated, the problem of the twentieth century was the color line, Emmett Till stood at the crossroads, and stands there still. What it means to be American, what it means to be Black, what it means to be a man, what it means to be free, what it means to face the choice of liberty or death, surrender or resistance, how do we as the descendants of an enslaved people and a slaveholding nation navigate the treacherous terrain of our history? The story of Emmett Till is a modern epic, one that has shaped both our past and present. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement, I wanted to know the child, to discover what was his agency. Who was the person behind the saga that bears his name?

Production Notes

The Ballad of Emmett Till received a Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference fellowship and premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2008, winning the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Play. The Ballad made its West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles in 2010, garnering six Ovation Awards, including Best Production; four Drama Desk Critics’ Circle Awards, including Best Production; and the Backstage Garland Award for Best Playwriting. Productions followed with the Houston Ensemble Theatre and the National Black Theatre Festival in 2011, Penumbra Theatre in 2014, and Ion Theatre in 2017, where it earned top honors at the San Diego Critics Circle Craig Noel Award, including Outstanding Dramatic Production.

Bayeza has expanded The Ballad into The Till Trilogy, recounting the epic Civil Rights saga in three distinct dramas: The Ballad, telling the intimate story of the boy’s quest; That Summer in Sumner, chronicling the five-day trial of his killers; and Benevolence, charting the transformation in the Mississippi Delta in the wake of Till’s death. Penumbra Theatre’s 2019 debut production of Benevolence received universally outstanding reviews and was ranked one of the ten “Best in Twin Cities Theatre” by the Star Tribune. Receiving the prestigious Roy Cockrum Foundation award, Mosaic Theatre Company of DC will mount The Till Trilogy in full as the centerpiece of the 2021 season.


Ifa Bayeza is an award-winning theatre artist, novelist and educator. She works through both a creative nonfiction and fictional lens to explore pivotal intersections of race throughout history. The Till Trilogy interprets the epic saga of Civil Rights icon Emmett Till. Her novel Some Sing, Some Cry, co-authored with her sister Ntozake Shange, chronicles 200 years of African-American music through seven generations of women. Her drama String Theory, in a quartet of voices, relives the voyage of the Amistad slave ship, and the tragicomedy Welcome to Wandaland, her experience of desegregation in St. Louis post-Brown vs. Board of Education. Musicals include Charleston Olio on the birth of the Jazz Age and Bunk Johnson, A Blues Poem on the life of the legendary Jazz trumpeter. Currently commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, she is collaborating with twelve writers in New Iberia, Louisiana, to reconstruct the historic narrative of Shadows-on-the-Teche, a former sugarcane plantation. A graduate of Harvard University with an MFA in Theatre from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the 2018 inaugural Humanist-in-Residence at the National Endowment for the Humanities was a finalist for the 2020 Herb Alpert Award in Theatre and for the 2020 Francesca Primus Prize.


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