by Carole di Tosti
Accepted into the New York Musical Festival 2019, Till, the story of posthumous Civil Rights icon Emmett Till is perhaps the most powerful offering in the lineup of outstanding musicals this year. Till is based on the true story of Emmett Till’s teenage years in Chicago, Illinois 1955 up until the time he visits family in Money, Mississippi.
That was Till’s first and last time in the Jim Crow South. There, he laid down his bludgeoned body to rest and rose up a remembrance for all time that discriminatory hatred has no place in the hearts and minds of Americans under the U.S. Constitution, a fact that has currency for us today.
Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro, responsible for the striking book, relate the events portraying the sweetness and vivacity of Emmett Till in his early teen years. Raised by a devout single mother and his grandmother, whose participation with the church greatly influenced his life, Till was full of hope for his own future, the pride of his mother.
The storyline deals with the fateful incident that occurred in the grocery store and includes the most recent information revealed in an interview by the woman who accused Till wrongfully of acting counter to “accepted” Jim Crow laws. As Schwartz’s and Cathro’s musical reveals, she incited her husband against Emmett Till to suit her own agenda. Schwartz and DC Cathro vitally show the precipitating events leading up to Till’s accusation and give a no holds barred rendering of his merciless abduction in front of his uncle as he is dragged away to be beaten and lynched.
The music and lyrics by Leo Schwartz beautifully reflect the culture and ethos of the time, relying on gospel music, ballads and blues, especially in the beginning with “When He Comes Back,” “Bless This House,” “The Lord is My Shepherd;” and at the conclusion, the effectual and mind-blowing “Follow Me.” Locating all of the emotional highpoints in what the book writers convey, Schwartz relays Emmett Till’s enthusiasm to visit his family and go away on a wonderful vacation in the vibrant and high spirited “Money, Mississippi.” The irony that this is where Till dies is hair-raising.
Also, with beauty and great irony is the song “Coming Home to You,” that the ensemble led by Till sings. His promise to his mother not to worry about the Jim Crow South represents the youthfulness of innocence. He cannot imagine what his mother fears will happen. When he relates he will return to her and come back unharmed, the tragedy of what happens is all the more impactful because we know that his mother is right. He will never return. But he doesn’t see the world as evil.
The power of Till’s story and character are conveyed with precision by the superb Taylor Blackman as Till, and the exceptional Denielle Marie Gray as Mamie, his mother. The fabulous ensemble portrays the other characters. They include: Tyla Collier, Dwelvan David, Judith Franklin, Devin L. Roberts.
Till’s Blackman and Gray’s Mamie in their authenticity and golden-voiced grace evoke the love between mother and son. In Till’s standout number “Proud of Me” and in Mamie’s heartfelt and devastatingly emotional “I Want You Back” after Till dies, we can understand why Mamie Till would not let her son’s memory be lost forever in history as one more invisible “negro” mowed down by a racial hatred that to Southerners was justified.
The songs and book in Till are monumental as they should be. They lead us to understand that this was an inflection point in the history of our nation from which the American people could never turn back and pretend things were “fine.” Mamie Till made sure, with her son’s mutilated body on display at his funeral, that the country received the full weight of the South’s child-killing mores.
And it is with the soaring gospel “Follow Me” that Emmett Till is launched into the annals of U.S. history in memoriam with a projection of the names of other black men and women today who have given up their lives to injustice and whose blood cries out that such hateful infamy must end.
NJ Agwuna’s superb direction and vision include the photo of Mamie Till with the body of Emmett Till at the conclusion, along with apt projections, sets and staging. The artistic creatives helped to make this one-of-a-kind production shine. It is a national treasure.
Till. Final performance [TONIGHT] Sunday, 28 July, at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). http://www.nymf.org/festival/2019-events/till/
Photos: Russ Rowland