Trayvon, Amadou and "Emmett Down in My Heart"
By: Isa Goldberg
On the subway to work last week, eavesdropping on the African American woman sitting next to me, I watched as she told her
young son that he better behave in school, because he’s a "brown boy," so he has to be more circumspect. That people are going to be real hard on him is something I didn’t think any kid should have to listen to. But then, I realized why that mother had to tell that to her son.
In "Emmett Down In My Heart," Jasmine Saunise as the14-year-old’s mother rebuffs her son constantly with The Rules: "Don’t look at white people, especially women. Keep your eyes down." She nags endlessly about the behaviors her Chicago son will need while visiting his cousins in Mississippi. That the tragedy is foretold makes these anxious moments all the more uncomfortable.
Directed with grace and ingenuity by Erica Gould, the persistently dark drama recounts the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (James Ross) in Drew, Mississippi. Allegedly, Emmett had whistled at a white woman. His executioners were acquitted.
But Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother stood her ground, exposing her son’s brutal murder in a glass topped casket for hundreds of thousands of people – citizens and reporters – who came to pay homage to him. As she describes his visage, "one tooth…chop, chop, chop to the side of your face…there is daylight where your left ear was." And there was a bullet hole, which wasn’t really needed.
It’s a cold case (whether you can recall it or not) that remains buried in our collective conscience, and which helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. In a program note, playwright Clare Coss writes, that "Rosa Parks said her thoughts were on Emmett Till when she kept her seat in the front of that Montgomery bus."
As narrative, Coss explores the mentality of one of Emmett’s murderers, a poor shop keeper, played with brio by Josh Berresford. A wife batterer, and frustrated soul, Roy seeks vengeance amidst the tranquility of Mississippi’s Alluvial Plains.
In a prophetic role, Zoe Anastassiou portrays the schoolteacher who chides the Lord that he "shouldn’t have taken that seventh day off, until he got all of us white." Anastassiou has the gift of transforming through song, from a slightly screechy young woman to a mellifluous advocate of change.
From the beginning, however, this is Emmett’s story. James Ross is the innocent youth, born with the polio that left him with a stutter, and whose cheerful responsible life ended in violence. It’s a cathectic performance, as is Jasmine Saunise’s as his heroic mother. And Lorenzo Jackson as the cousin who started it all (over $.50) creates a sad and troubling presence.
Joseph Spirito’s scenic design in wood evokes the aroma of fresh cut cedar, while costume designer Latoya Murray-Berry brings back the rustic clothing of poor folk in America of the 50s. There is little light (designer Xavier Pierce) on the stage, save the melodious musical arrangements by Bill Toles. At The Castillo Theatre through May 17th, Clare Coss brings us a relentless, disturbing tale for our time.
Photo Credit Castillo Theatre
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