The Castillo Theatre, located at 543 West 42nd Street in Manhattan, is revisiting the story of Emmett Till via the play “Emmett Down In My Heart.” Written by Clare Coss, and directed by Erica Gould, the story of Emmett Till is a tragic one that leaves a black eye on the rural town of Money, Mississippi, for all time. After Jet Magazine ran the photo of Emmett Till and what killers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milliam, did to him, the world was scandalized. It is forever printed within the annals of America as its great shame.
Ms. Coss’s play is told from the viewpoint of two main narrators, RoAnne Taylor (Zoe Anastassiou) and Till’s Mother, Mamie Till, played by Jasmine Saunise. Throughout the play, one of the major voices is of a young white teacher, Roanne Taylor (a fictionalized character). Taylor narrates her version of what went on the day that Emmett Till died. She claims fear of speaking out and horror of the event. In some ways she seems to mirror the silent voice of the people of Money, Mississippi.
Emmett Till (James Ross) is presented as a cleaver young man, who had a penchant for jokes and fun. Raised in Chicago, Ill, Till was not subject to the racist Jim Crow Laws of the South. Even though his mother Mamie warned him, Emmett did not grasp how severe these laws were, even though shortly before visiting Money, Mississippi, where his uncle Mose (Cassagnol Leonidas, Jr.) lived, two men had been murdered trying to register black voters.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old boy who in 1955 traveled to Money, MS, where he was brutally murdered. It is an event that forever remains in the minds of African Americans. It sent shock waves around the world. No one thought Whites would go so far as to kill a child. Emmett Till had barely turned 14, when he begged his mother to let him travel south to visit relatives. Although concerned for his welfare his mother relied on her family to instruct Emmett about the ways of the South. She did advise him to get off the sidewalk when a White passed and to keep his head down to avoid confrontation, not to speak and especially not speak to white women, who were known to get many a black man killed. As the story goes, Till was teased by his cousins to go into the local store and buy bubblegum. Supposedly they dared Emmett to whistle at Carolyn Bryant, who owned the store with her husband, Roy. Bryant was a former beauty queen. Other tales insinuate that Till carried photos of white women in his wallet. It is said that while in the store Till bought bubble gum and whistled at Carolyn Bryant who ran for her gun. His cousin claims Till did whistle but did not do what Carolyn testified at trial, Till did. Emmett was known to stutter when pronouncing the letter “B” emanating a whistle.
The play, “Emmett Down In My Heart” suggests that Carolyn Bryant was frightened by her abusive husband and was reticent about even telling Roy Bryant (Josh Berresford) about the incident. In fact, it suggests that Maurice Wright, Till’s cousin (Lorenzo Jackson), was jealous of Emmett, therefore approached Roy Bryant and told him that Emmett whistled at Carolyn. It’s suggested Maurice did this in order to get a 50 cent store credit.
The production’s poetic license aside, I feel compelled to share some known facts within police reports and FBI investigations. I had the opportunity to interview filmmaker Keith Beauchamp, who made Emmett Till his life work. He spent several months with the Till family and those few witnesses brave enough to discuss the case. Frankly, it was not until 2012, that Simeon Wright, Till’s cousin, stepped forward to correct some of the lies and distortions put forth by the media who unable to get the Money, MS, population to talk about what happened, distorted facts. Below is an excerpt of Simeon Wright’s interview. He began by describing the condition of Emmett Till’s body and talked about correcting some of the lies told.
“…my cousin Emmett’s wrists and legs were broken. His eyes gouged. He was lynched, his head bashed in. The crown of his skull came off when he was pulled from the river. His tongue was cut out and shoved back into his mouth. Lies were spread about our family. My brother Maurice never accepted a 50-cent store credit to tell Milam and Bryant where Emmett was. There were no pictures in Emmett’s wallet of naked white women. My father was never sneaked out of Mississippi after the trial. That never happened. My father was upset he risked his life to testify at trial, but the verdict was not guilty.” Also, the night Bryant and Millam kidnapped Emmett, they dragged him out of the bed and to a truck where a woman’s voice stated “He is the one who whistled at me.” The family has always believed that woman was Carolyn Bryant and in all of these 48 years, there has never been evidence presented that proves otherwise.”
A 2014 interview by a former Klu Klux Klan member, Scott Shepherd, a friend of the Bryant family, conveyed the white town folks, as well as his parents, told Shepherd that Carolyn Bryant, was well known to wear short shorts and flirt with young men in the store, both black and white. Everyone in the town knew it but never testified to this fact or even told authorities. It was the town secret.
Thus, it seems while poetic license is always granted, an historic tragedy such as the murder of Emmett Till, deserves to stay as close to the facts as possible. C-Span did an in-depth interview with Simeon Wright wherein Wright dispelled many of the inaccuracies and fallacies surrounding the death of Emmett Till. Given the current information available, I hope the prize-winning playwright will give consideration to the witness accounts provided above. After all, the death of Emmett Till was a national disgrace and thus he deserves to have his story told as accurately as possible.
The show “Emmett Down in My Heart,” will be at the Castillo Theater until Sunday, May 17th.