Up from the Mississippi Delta

The brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which helped spark the Civil Rights Movement, casts long, dark shadows on three new theatre works

By Carl Hancock Rux

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memory takes a lot of poetic liscence. It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.
—Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams

Memory and history, like fraternal twins, are the offspring of the same parent—a series of events—and both are subject to change. They may stem from the same place and have many similarities, yet manifest themselves differently; both are informed by environment, culture and the time in which they are formed. During the 2007–08 theatre season, the Mississippi Delta—that alluvial plain (technically it is not a delta) between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwest section of the state of Mississippi—gave birth to several distinctly different productions that oscillate between memory and history—including one which, at first glance, does not seem to be about the Delta at all.

This past April and May, Chicago’s flagship Goodman Theatre produced playwright Ifa Bayeza’s The Ballad of Emmett Till, directed by Oz Scott. At BRIC Studio in downtown Brooklyn, 651 Arts presented (as part of its season-long Mississippi Delta Heritage Project) the latest installation of Ping Chong & Co.’s Undesirable Elements/Secret History project, a play called Delta Rising, written and directed by Chong collaborator Talvin Wilks. The third production under consideration here—one that did not explicitly focus on the Delta—is the fourth Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer–winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen. Since it was the first Cat to be performed by an all-African-American cast (James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard were featured), Allen’s production was, in effect, about the Delta, and it offers refracted insights into what that storied land has meant to America in the past century and what it might signify to us today. Indeed, what Bayeza’s play and the Ping Chong/Talvin Wilks collaboration share with Allen’s revival has less to do with the region that parented all three projects than it does with a complex depiction of identity and history, stirring questions about the place the Mississippi Delta still holds in the American psyche.

No American playwright painted images of the Delta as often or as poetically as Williams did. Born in 1911 in Columbus, Miss., and raised in Clarksdale, the writer drew upon the Delta as a primary source of inspiration throughout his career. In his hands, the American South became a dilapidated, idyllic, aristocratic landscape yellowing with antiquity and held together by its mythology. The portrayal of the region that emerges in Williams’s texts recalls Don Quixote’s remembrance of a more fulfilling time in his past in Camino Real : “that green country he lived in which was the youth of his heart, before such singing words as Truth!” Infused with existential symbolism, Williams’s plays were written with religious piety and painted broadly with della Robbia–blue brushstrokes; like the preferred interiors of his character Blanche DuBois, Williams’s image of the Delta was cast in a light no brighter than that of a dim candle, the rude remarks and vulgar actions of reality softened by its haze. As his semi-autobiographical protagonist Tom Wingfield makes clear at the top of The Glass Menagerie , Williams is offering not the illusion of truth but rather “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” One of those illusions was that the Delta had been a realm utterly dominated by white Americans, even as it was silently occupied by people of color.

First staged by Elia Kazan in 1955 and adapted for the screen three years later with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof famously centers around the dysfunctional marriage of a young couple—the alcoholic, brooding Brick and his sexually frustrated, childless wife Maggie—and their interaction with Brick’s family as they gather on a Mississippi estate for the birthday celebration of its fatally ill patriarch, Big Daddy. In its most controversial version (and there were several), Brick alludes to the source of his depression: the homosexual nature of his friendship with a football buddy who, once rejected by Brick, recently drank himself to death. The theme of the play, as stated by its troubled protagonist, is mendacity—Brick’s disgust with the world and its lies. The play’s African-American characters, Sookey and Lacey, two servants, function merely to support the business of the main action. In both the original stage and film versions, Sookey and Lacey are whisked quietly on and off, in and out of the frame, like ghosts without dimension or even the minstrelsy or the comic relief afforded by such actors as Hattie McDaniel decades earlier. (The original Broadway production also featured two unnamed blues musicians portrayed by singer-guitarist Browns McGhee and blind harmonica player Sonny Terry.)

For the most part, in Williams’s plays, African Americans are depicted as the curiously silent other lurking in the sidelines of servitude. Except in a few later (and lesser known) works, they are void of conflict or epiphany, either referenced with derogatory playfulness (as Amanda Wingfield does in Glass Menagerie when, intercepting her daughter’s offer to serve dessert, insists “You be the lady this time and I’ll be the darkey!”) or absent altogether. His half-drawn representations of African Americans were a testament to the time and place in which they were written. Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and Mississippi led the nation in African American lynching well into the 1930s. America’s receptiveness to Williams’s illustration of the South as the wounded sister of an old familial battle (the Civil War), desperately clinging to romantic notions of jonquils in a bygone era, could be credited to his evident talent as a writer—but it also spoke to the nation’s need to reconcile with its past and emerge as a unified front. In dramatic terms, non-whites were scarcely considered human; the black Mississippians in Williams’s plays were voiceless, apolitical, marginalized, oppressed people who knew their place and kept their mouths shut, barely existing in a Delta of cotillions where fading debutantes in frocks of voile and silk entertained a multitude of Sunday afternoon gentlemen callers—so many, in fact, Amanda says she had to “send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house.”

The truth is the Mississippi Delta has always been much more complicated than anything these silent stereotypes might suggest.

In Debbie Allen’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the issue of race was subtracted as the obvious difference between the silent servants in the background and the troubled, loquacious white family in the foreground; so the re-casting of race created a recognizable humanity that was most likely previously unavailable to audiences in the 1950s. Considering that the play’s original text was unedited, the premise of the Pollitt family as a wealthy black family was surprisingly believable, especially given the portrayal of Big Daddy by the indomitable James Earl Jones as a wealthy plantation owner who happens to be black—a fact not inconsistent with the Delta’s history. Contrary to common belief, there have long been blacks in the Delta who owned land and exerted significant influence on the development of the region. As early as 1870, Hiram Rhoades Revels was the first black politician to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Congress. Five years later, Blanche K. Bruce became Mississippi’s first black U.S. Senator. Despite these historical landmarks, “the real history of the Delta seems to have been forgotten and is compounded by our lack of education,” suggests Delta Rising writer/director Talvin Wilks.

Revisiting his experience of Allen’s production of Cat, Wilks claimed, “You walked away from the show with whatever you thought you already knew of the Delta. What I would have liked to have seen is a valid experience of African Americans in the Delta, even without changing the text. The script did work with Big Daddy as an African-American overachiever addressing issues of self-hatred and assimilation.” But Wilks went on to suggest that Allen’s Cat failed to surpass notions of a “Hollywood gimmick,” referring to a current trend to draw African-American audiences to Broadway with star-studded black productions, following the success of the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun starring hip-hop mogul Sean Combs.

Allen’s Cat is the third Broadway show with an all-black cast in four years to have done exceptionally well, especially with a predominately black audience, reported the New York Times. (The other hit named was The Color Purple.) Despite the dismissal of Cat by some critics (the production was not nominated in any of the 30 categories of the 2008 Drama Desk awards, nor did it garner any Tony nominations), the play’s sold-out run suggested the promise of a “new” audience for New York’s commercial theatre. But Allen says that, for her, the idea of “all-black really isn’t an issue. The characters,” she mused in a Times interview, “are so universal. I know them. We’re coming into it like an explorer, just discovering the lives of the people.”

Though the Mississippi Delta has been the birthplace of many successful African Americans, including Morgan Freeman and Oprah Winfrey, it remains today one of the most economically disenfranchised regions in the country. With its 37-percent African-American resident population—the largest in the country, as prospective Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama recently pointed out—Mississippi represents the lowest per-capita income in the nation. (In this part of the still racially polarized South, in a contest split along racial lines, Senator Obama won the state’s Democratic vote by 90 percent, half of his voters being white.)

Conceivably, this statistical and demographic profile might be an indication of the evolution of ideas of race and identity in the region—a reality that may explain why Allen reset her revival of Cat in a “more recent time period” than its original setting, thus de-emphasizing the play’s precise convergence in time with the Emmett Till tragedy. In her conversation with the Times, Allen dismissed the year of the play’s conception as the year “Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi.” She added: “There weren’t any black men [like Brick] in the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl. We don’t have to talk about the year; we just adjust.”

Allen’s production of ‘cat’ was on Wilks’s mind as he conducted interviews with several native Mississippians for Delta Rising. The project remained true to Ping Chong and Co.’s process of using interviews in an extended residency to create a final script that the participants themselves—three black, one Asian, one white, varying in age from 20 to 71—performed in Brooklyn.

Pointing to a history of which he himself was admittedly unaware, Wilks found himself impacted by what he learned from his cast, especially Shermel Carthan, an acting student at the California Institute of the Arts. Carthan is the descendant of James Carthan, an African-American sharecropper and prohibition-era moonshine manufacturer who in 1939 purchased 60 acres of Delta land once belonging to a Native-American Choctaw reservation. According to Carthan, his grandfather was “the only African American, at the time, to own land” in the small town of Tchula, Miss., 61 miles north of Jackson. The area’s overwhelming poverty did not prevent his grandfather’s initial investment from growing tenfold. Shermel Carthan’s father Eddie would grow up working his way through law school while farming his family’s 600 acres and raising cotton, soybeans and wheat. An educator at Saints College in Lexington, Miss., Eddie Carthan would later become a business developer for the U.S. Department of Commerce in the Office of Minority Business Enterprise; a president of the Mississippi Family Farmers Association; and, in 1977, the first black mayor of Tchula, where he served two terms. Carthan would eventually see his political career marred by an arrest and trial for the murder of Roosevelt Granderson, an African-American alderman—a charge of which he was acquitted in 1982. Recalling Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Shermel Carthan grew up in “the White House,” one of the largest mansions in Tchula, set on an 18th-century plantation complete with slave quarters. Before entering college, Carthan attended two private boarding schools: Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and Piney Woods—the latter founded in Mississippi in 1909 by an African-American minister, Laurence Clifton Jones.

In Delta Rising, Carthan describes Minister Jones, with a proud, articulate southern twang, as “an African American with $3.17 [in his pocket], a bible, and a dream to educate black people.” Despite the murderous threats of Klansmen, Jones’s Piney Woods school was established in a desperately poor section of rural Rankin County, under the shade of a cedar tree, with the students using a fallen log as a desk. The story goes that Jones delivered a sermon so powerful that members of the Klan actually “took up a collection” to help establish the school, and by the end of its fifth year, Piney Woods received a charter from the governor of Mississippi. In the 1920s, Piney Woods began a separate division for blind students. The school followed the example of other black institutions of higher learning such as Fisk, Hampton and Tuskegee; it is where five members of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi would meet in the early ’30s and, soon thereafter, form a gospel quartet.

The secret history of the Mississippi Delta is its real history—one often overshadowed by mainstream images of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and a black/white racial divide. “These forgotten histories,” Wilks insists, “are a paradigm for larger issues [in America], and it takes projects like Delta Rising to bring attention to them once again.” He and Chong braided into Delta Rising the interrelated stories of other notable Mississippians: Toni Seawright, the first African-American Miss Mississippi to compete in the Miss America beauty pageant; E’Dena Hines, the granddaughter of the actor Morgan Freeman and a successful MFA acting candidate at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts; and Virginia Wing, a Chinese-American actress born in Marks, Miss., whose great uncle became a successful Delta businessman at the beginning of the 20th century despite both the efforts of white Mississippi planters to replace post–Civil War black labor with Chinese labor and the legal barriers created by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first U.S. law to exclude immigrants on the basis of race).

Another performer/participant in Delta Rising was Gene Dattel, born in Greenwood, Miss., in 1944. His grandfather fled Latvia to escape Eastern European pogroms and avoid being drafted into the Russian army. After arriving in the U.S. via Ellis Island, Dattal’s family became part of a burgeoning culture of Jewish immigrants. Dattel told the story of the first Jewish synagogue built in Clarksdale in 1912: “It became a town affair. The lumber company donated lumber. The sheriff’s office donated free prison labor. Citizens who planned to run for office made cash donations. The Torah arrived on the 3 p.m. train at the railroad depot and was passed from hand to hand by anyone willing to pay $100 for the honor. The local colored band led the parade.”

Less than five months after ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ opened on Broadway in March of 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American from Chicago who was vacationing in Money, Miss. (a small town in the Delta, eight miles north of Greenwood), stopped at Bryant’s grocery store, owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, to buy some candy. Till—the cousin of Shermel Carthan’s mother, as it was revealed in Delta Rising—was accused that day of “whistling” at the 21-year-old Carolyn. Several days later, Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam, along with Carolyn Bryant, abducted Till from his great uncle Moses Wright’s home, beat him, undressed him, shot him, tied a 70-pound cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Miss. When the missing boy’s disappearance was investigated, Bryant and Milam admitted that they had taken the boy from his great uncle’s yard but claimed that after a talking-to they had let him go.

Till’s nude body was discovered tied with the fan, his genitalia hacked away, his facial features too distorted to positively identify his remains. According to Till’s mother, the sheriff called for an immediate burial “because he knew it wouldn’t be good for the state of Mississippi for the people to see what had happened.” The grave of Till was dug and his body was about to be placed in the ground when his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, rallied to have Chicago officials demand that the state of Mississippi return her son’s body. At an open-casket funeral in Illinois, the corpse was photographed by the press: The boy’s right eye was missing; he had a broken nose and a bullet wound to the head. Fifty thousand people attended the funeral in Illinois. Although Bryant and Milam were indicted for the kidnapping and murder, an all-white jury deliberated for a little more than an hour and found the men not guilty. Following the trial, and after photos of the mutilated corpse were published in Jet magazine, Milam and Bryant confessed to killing Till in a story in Look magazine (published in January 1956), for which they were paid $4,000.

That same month, Baby Doll, another Tennessee Williams–authored project set in the Mississippi Delta, opened in movie houses across the country. The film’s trailer announced that it was filmed on location in Benoit, Miss., with “real live Mississippi extras.” The residents of Benoit who appeared in the film with spoken lines were white; those who were black appeared sitting silently, grinning underneath a tree, except when they were called upon to break out in song .

Meanwhile, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof closed on Broadway in November 1956, one year and two months after the Till trial.

“Did Emmett Till ever really exist?” one reporter asked rhetorically in an Associated Press article published Nov. 16, 1955, soon after the acquittal of the accused killers. “Or is this little Negro boy only a figment of the imagination? What the state of Mississippi has done, in substance, is twice to deny the existence of Emmett Till.” The reporter, Inez Robb, concluded: “Until the streets of its cities and the cabins of its sharecroppers are safe for all its children, a large segment of the nation must echo the cry—What kind of a land do we live in?”

The Till tragedy is well known today as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, one that brought attention not only to the Mississippi Delta but to the brutality of race oppression in the Jim Crow South. Based on numerous interviews over the past decade with Till’s family, teachers, classmates and eye-witnesses to the 1955 slaying, Ifa Bayeza’s jazz-infused play The Ballad of Emmett Till was developed in the Goodman’s New Stages Series as well as at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2007 National Playwrights Conference. The Till case has spawned several documentaries, books and other theatre projects over the years, including, most recently, solo performer Michael Wiley’s touring play Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till , now being filmed by Mississippi Public Television. Robert Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director, said that the subject of Till in Bayeza’s play allows us to “examine our own lives and actions through the prism of an epoch-defining moment in history.”

Speaking from Chicago, Bayeza says of her play, “I was drawn to Emmett and he to me. He walked in, planted his feet, took over the lead and took me on a journey. Emmett’s story is the story of of Every Black Boy, much like Huck Finn came to symbolize every American Boy—the difference being that the black male child’s journey into manhood has been frequently blighted. My play is a universal coming-of-age drama about the aborted quest of the boy-hero to become a man. I believe it has a singificance beyond the temporal.

“From the beginning,” Bayeza continues, “the narrative of Emmett Till has had a mythic impact that has resonated through the decades. On the the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was thinking about Emmett’s mother’s decision to have an open casket. Both gestures reflect the role of ordinary people and the valor of individual black women in the coming struggle.” Bayeza cites the examples of Fannie Lou Hamer and Muhammad Ali. Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, had spotted one of the Milam brothers, perhaps Emmett’s alleged murderer, among the sheriff’s deputies who confronted her when she tried to register to vote. In that moment, Hamer “decided to become an activist, and that decision took her all the way to the 1964 National Democratic Convention, which brought the Dixiecrat cabal to an end,” says Bayeza. Ali, who is the same age as Emmett would have been today, hurled stones at an Uncle Sam poster he found in a train station in an act of protest upon hearing of his murder. Julian Bond, Cleveland Sellers and many other activists who came of age in that time credit the Till case with their political awakening. The spontaneous outpouring of grief of the thousands of mourners who lined the streets of Chicago for the viewing of Emmett’s body foreshadowed the nonviolent protests and mass gatherings that became the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement.

Over 10 years in the making, The Ballad of Emmett Till began as a one-act and was expanded into a full-length play in what the author calls four “movements.” Bayeza first presented excerpts of Emmett Till at the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria, La., where she was named the 2003 Arna Bontemps Centennial Scholar, then debuted the first movement of the play in a public staged reading at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. Staged by Sue Lawless, the play-in-progress was then presented as part of the Juneteenth Legacy New Plays Festival, also in Louisville, and went on to a September ’05 reading at the Fountain Theatre of Los Angeles, directed by John Wesley—who appeared as Moses in the Goodman’s production.

Emmett Till was also selected in 2005 by Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre and Providence Black Repertory Company as the inaugural project for RPM Mainstage, a new-play development partnership, and Bayeza began a six-month residency at Brown to develop the full-length version. The first staged reading of all four movements happened at Providence Black Rep in March ’06, directed by the late Marsha Z. West.

Emmett Till is structured, Bayeza says, as “a jazz integration of past and present, the living and dead, factual accounts and creative interpolation.” The first movement explores the intimate relationship between a mother and her only son. The second traces Till’s coming of age during the apogee of 20th-century American racism, resulting in his abduction and murder. The third movement integrates the trial of his murderers with the “trials that [Till’s] family must face in seeking justice and his soul’s effort to come to grips with what has happened”—a “crucifixion,” as Bayeza depicts it. The final movement, “Daylight,” conjures Till as a Christ-like figure facing death, resurrection and eventual ascension. In her notes for the play, Bayeza describes these four movements as “concentric—from a duet of mother and son…to a septet of the family…to the full ensemble chorus of the public trials, returning again to the duet in the final movement.”

In one scene, as Till arrives in the Delta, Bayeza poignantly writes about the teenager’s internal observation of the land before him. Till says:

Mississippi!… The delta,
far as the eye can see.
Flat fertile, serene. Emerald ocean,
white caps of cotton. Sweat sittin’ on you
like skin. What else could you ask for?

Bayeza’s story unfolds as a recitative of sensory experiences befalling an urban teenager who’s never been to the rural South. “He is the urban descendant of an agricultural South experiencing culture shock,” according to a Variety review of the Goodman production. “Absolutely the funniest moments come with Emmett trying to learn to pick cotton and kill a chicken.” Bayeza employs an impressionistic style to write about history, race and the segregated South, as opposed to simply reporting the facts. Like a series of conceptual photographs of life and death, the interplay of safety and danger come into focus according to the viewer’s abstract or literal interpretation of experiences; the play closes with the boy’s “broken body standing upright, naked, crippled, blood-soaked, maimed” as (according to the stage directions) “the future assembles.” Emmett’s ascension is portrayed as a reunification of mother and son.

Bayeza’s use of sound and imagery to capture an event that famously defined for a nation the Mississippi Delta and the stain left by its connotation almost directly responds to a statement about form made by Williams in his introduction to The Glass Menagerie : “Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.”

Williams’s view—a kind of postmodernist approach to representing life through a subjective, idealized romantic lens—champions what Bayeza’s imagination in The Ballad of Emmett Till similarly allows: a re-photographing of time and place that, once removed from the immediacy of its history, offers a deeper and more in-depth analysis of it. As Delta Rising ensemble member E’Dena Hines, who took part in a New York reading of Emmett Till two years ago at the New Federal Theatre, puts it, Bayeza’s play “brought to life a people and a time I had never spent time thinking about. Ifa gave a voice to this silenced moment in history. The fluidity of the story and the influence of music made for a great piece of theatrical history.”

However, others see Bayeza’s impressionistic approach less sympathetically. A Time Out Chicago critic wrote, “If Bayeza’s script hewed closer to lean docudrama than misty sketches laced with false, we-survived-this triumphalism, or if its one fearless dramatic element—a brutal recreation of Till’s slaughter by male relatives of the white woman Till allegedly whistled at—were the show’s centerpiece rather than a last-minute, guilt-inducing sneak attack, this ballad would resonate. Instead, it just makes you wish Emmett Till had a better literary executor.” But demanding that the playwright refrain from iconic, poetic impressionism as a mode of revisiting atrocity is to ask the artist not to magnify the event or historical circumstances that inspired the play—it is like demanding that George Bernard Shaw not use the trials of Joan of Arc to speak to the author’s socialist, humanitarian goals, or that Brecht refrain from converting his eponymous protagonist in Saint Joan of the Stockyards into an icon of Marxist principles in Weimar-era Germany. If the play based on The Diary of Anne Frank had not abstracted the character of Frank as a saintly, sentimental martyr of the Holocaust in order to promote democracy, the lessons of her tragedy may well have been lost on the audiences of the McCarthy era in which the play was first presented.

Whatever her ultimate aims, Bayeza’s depiction of Till, like Tennessee Williams’s and Talvin Wilks’s and Ping Chong’s delineation of the Delta, remains true to the memory of a subjective eye. For Bayeza, Till as a character evokes the protagonist of “sacred dramas, such as the pageant plays of early Christianity.” “Till’s was a spiritually based family, and his story is replete with Christian metaphor,” says Bayeza.

In Delta Rising, meanwhile, the cast members ask each other, “What does the Delta mean to you?” The answer: an amalgam of experiences, sights, sounds and tastes—soy sauce chicken, black-eyed peas; an African-American beauty queen’s refusal to allow a white racist’s public dismissal of her to impact her own triumphant moment; the confusion of a little Chinese girl when bowed to by an older black male; the accidental drowning of that same little girl’s brother, which forever impacted the woman she would become.

In deference to Williams, whose own insight had adhered to an era of social blindness, it must be acknowledged that he crafted plays with a poet’s prophetic ear for the transcendence of the time and space in which the text was written. One might imagine that an African-American Maggie, when speaking to her husband Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is also speaking to her author as well as to the play’s speechless black characters when she warns: “When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant.”

Playwright Carl Hancock Rux is a writer, performer and head of writing for performance at the California Institute of the Arts’s School of Theater.