Collaboraction Theatre announces a new play, “Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till,” a live production, running February 9-19, in partnership with and presented at the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center.
“Trial in the Delta” plays like a live, interactive reenactment experience of the actual court proceedings that occurred in Sumner, Mississippi, in 1955, using only the same words that were actually said during the trial.
The murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in August, 1955, brought national attention to the racial violence and injustice prevalent in the deep south. While on a trip from his hometown, Chicago, to visit relatives in Mississippi, Till went to the Bryant Grocery Store with his cousins, and may have whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman.
Her husband, Roy Bryant, and brother-in-law, J.W. Milam, kidnapped and brutally murdered Till, dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. The newspaper coverage and murder trial galvanized a generation of young African Americans to join the Civil Rights Movement out of fear that such an incident could happen to friends, family or even themselves.
Actors portraying witnesses for the defense and prosecution, including Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till and uncle Moses Wright, deliver deeply emotional and biting testimonies. Other key characters, based on real life, include presiding judge Curtis Swango; defense attorney J. J. Breeland; District Attorney Gerald Chatham and, of course, Milam and Bryant, who were found not guilty but later admitted to the heinous crime.
To bring the once-hidden trial to life, Collaboraction commissioned Chicago playwrights G. Riley Mills and Willie Round to co-adapt the original transcript.
The Crusader talked to the principals with this play who discussed today’s relevance of this performance.
“This production of ‘Trial in the Delta’ is essential to understand the birth of the Civil Rights Movement, and it serves as a reminder of the progress we must continue to strive for,” said Round. “It is critical that we never forget the struggles of the past, or we will be doomed to repeat them.”
Said Artistic Director Anthony Moseley, “Once in a lifetime, if we are lucky, a project like this comes along. There are many plays about Emmett Till, but they are fictions created out of horrid facts that only guess at the actual language. When audiences experience how everything actually went down in that Mississippi courtroom, the impact is even more profound.”
This writer finds it unbelievable that the trial transcript was nearly 400 pages, given the mockery that the proceedings seemed to make of the entire process. But the transcript was analyzed and combed over for its importance to the play.
“When compiling information for the play, we started with the transcript, and we simply went through it to figure out which characters were essential to tell the story of what happened to Emmett Till and what happened in that courtroom,” said Mills.
“To begin, we got rid of secondary or minor witnesses that didn’t add anything to that narrative. And slowly but surely, the story of the murder of Emmett Till began to emerge, and witness after witness, we simply allowed them to tell us what happened. And each witness, as they take the stand, paints another bit of the picture, until by the end, we have an absolutely clear understanding of what happened to Emmett and what took place during his kidnapping and murder.”
Perri Irmer, President and CEO of The DuSable, said “Trial in the Delta allows contemporary audiences to experience this flagrant and historic racial injustice of our legal system. Placed in the context of today’s much-publicized trials against Black men, this new work also illuminates ways in which history repeats itself.”
Mamie Till “is the heart and soul of ‘Trial in the Delta.’ She was always our guiding light and our North Star as we developed this script. With this new production and this new version of the script, we have centered Mamie in the story, highlighting her involvement and her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement through her grace, courage and intelligence, said Mills.
“At the end of the play, we get to finally hear Mamie Till speak to us—about her son, about the trial, and about her hopes for all of us, as a society, as we try to learn from this horrific tragedy and move forward together.”
Round added: “Mamie Till’s story is an important one to tell alone. Her strength and courage in the face of adversity was inspiring, and we wanted to honor her legacy by bringing her more to the forefront. Ultimately, we hope that this immersive experience will help to spread awareness of her story and the Civil Rights Movement.”
The immersive effect could prove explosive: Mills added: “This production [will] make the audience feel like they are actually in that courtroom in 1955–hearing these words for the very first time. So, to do that, they placed some of the witnesses in the audience, which can be very effective when all of a sudden the person sitting next to you stands up and walks to the stage to take the witness stand.”
Even nearly 70 years later, the attitude of the co-defendants is unnerving. “The cruelty and disrespect displayed by the co defendants during the trial is a direct result of the systemic racism and injustice that has been pervasive in our society for far too long. It is even more concerning that they knew they were that cocky and confident that they would get a non-guilty verdict,” said Round.
“They still had the audacity to smoke cigars and attend to their children during the trial in front of Mamie Till. It was an unacceptable display of disregard for the gravity of the situation, and it is why we must continue to fight for justice and equality. We must strive to create a world where no one ever has to experience such a tragedy again. It is only through our collective efforts that we can ensure that everyone is treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.”
“Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till” launches its run with a student matinee, Thursday, February 9, at 10:30 a.m. Public performances follow Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11, at 7 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, February 16-18 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, February 19, at 3 p.m.
Run time is two hours. Each performance will be followed by a Crucial Conversation introduced by Pilar Audain, associate director, Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) Greater Chicago, housed at The Chicago Community Trust.
Tickets are $30-$55 and are on sale at collaboraction.org. The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center is located at 740 E. 56th Place. Email [email protected] for information on student and group rates, and private event performances. The play is recommended for ages 12 and up.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].