“Till,” presented by American Theater Group at South Orange’s Church of St. Andrew & Holy Communion through March 8, takes its audience on a musical journey that is both heart-wrenching and uplifting. “Till” tackles the tragic story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago, whose murder in Mississippi in 1955 was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. “Till” made its world premiere in July 2019 at the New York Musical Festival.
In July 1955, Till traveled from his Chicago home to Money, Mississippi to visit relatives. While there, Till was accused of offending a white woman working in a grocery store. The woman’s husband and his half-brother kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home in the middle of the night. The two men brutally beat and shot Till, and then tossed him into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s body was found three days later.
“Till” the musical shows us who Emmett was, celebrating his life, family and community that loved and ultimately lost him to a horrific death by lynching. It also explores how a mother, Mamie Till, through her love and connection to her son as well as her strength, deals with unthinkable tragedy.
Mamie Till made the decision to have her son’s casket open at his funeral and the photo of his body, mutilated beyond recognition, became the image that changed the Civil Rights Movement.
Mamie Till’s prescient action made sure the world knew the horror of Till’s death. The creators of “Till” were inspired to tell the story because of what is happening in the world today. The musical opens with names being chanted in the church — Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin…and ending with Till. The opening scene and closing scene are Till’s funeral; in between we learn not only who he was but how those who loved him endured.
Marcus Beckett portrays Emmett Till, capturing the jubilant, fun-loving boy’s youthful exuberance. But it is Mamie (portrayed by Daisy Hobbs) who is the heart of “Till,” the audience taking emotional cues from her performance. We see and hear Mamie’s intense love for her son, aptly conveyed by Hobbs’ soaring vocals, and the fear she had to even let Emmett go visit family in the South.
Knowing what happens to Emmett does not blunt the emotional intensity of “Till,” in fact it makes it that much more powerful, poignant and emotionally charged. We see Mamie’s love, her hopes and dreams for Emmett and later her panic, fear and devastation.
Artistically, “Till” makes it audience work to follow the story. Six talented performers in the all African-American cast switch off, using subtle costume and vocal changes, to portray all the characters in “Till,” including the three white characters responsible for Emmett’s murder.
“Till” runs through March 8th at The Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & Holy Communion, 160 S. Orange Avenue, South Orange, NJ. Tickets are $39 and are available at americantheatergroup.org.
Following the March 5th performance, audience members are invited to stay for a talk back with Reverend Wheeler Parker, Jr — Emmett Till’s cousin who was with him in Mississippi in 1955 and is the last living witness to the events that led to Emmett’s murder.