The Xenia Area Community Theater (X*ACT) is currently producing an Ohio premiere, The Face of Emmett Till. In 1955, Mamie Till put her only son, 14-year-old Emmett on a train from Chicago to visit family in Mississippi. He was kidnapped and was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Decades later, Mamie Till Mobley co-wrote a play about her struggle.
In the late 1990’s Mamie Till Mobley called David Barr, an African American playwright in Chicago. Joyce Barnes, the play’s director for X*ACT theater in Xenia, says that even after so many years, Mamie Till Mobley still wanted to tell her story. “She wanted to set the record straight,” says Barnes, “many different versions of what happened had been out there and she wanted to tell it the way she knew it to be."
David Barr talked with Mamie Till for months and interviewed countless people related to the events, but he said he could not find the spirit of Emmitt and Mamie. Finally, she told him to visit the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery Alabama. Barnes recounts this conversation between Barr and Mamie Till Mobley. Barr asked Till Mobley, “Why do you want me to go?” She replied, “Because Emmett is there.” “And he went,” Barnes explains, “and he did encounter Emmett. And he said that in that moment the play, the plot, the story, everything just came together.”
Director Joyce Barnes calls The Face of Emmett Till, Mamie Till’s memory play. It captures how her family said goodbye to Emmett and warned him about Mississippi as in this dialogue:
Mamie: If you see a white man, just drop your head. I don’t care if it makes sense or not. Don’t even look them in the eye, just drop your head.
Spearman: Listen to your mama, boy.
Alma: Yes, now, she’s right. The boy’s got to know.
Emmett: Momma, you don’t got to worry about me. I'll be alright.
Actress Mendu Khanyile said it took time to find Mamie Till’s core amid her sorrow.
“In the beginning,” Khanyile recalls, “I was more infuriated when I was portraying her. And then I noticed that that’s not Mamie. Mamie’s very calm, very poised, and so I have to remove myself from the anger that I feel for her and almost become enlightened just as she was to understand that maybe anger is not the way to solve things sometimes.”
After hearing of Emmett’s death, Mamie Till found out that the police in Mississippi were trying to bury him there instead of in Chicago. Khanyile believes this revelation changes Mamie Till.
“A light switch comes on for her,” says Khanyile, “that if we don’t’ get Emmett back here, we’ll never know what happened. And why are people going out of their way to prevent Mamie from seeing him?”
We now know that Mamie Till also faced conflict when her family sought out the support of the NAACP and civil rights leader Roy Wilkins. It was a tough relationship as seen in this moment of dialogue between Mamie Till and Roy Wilkins.
Mamie: But you see you and the NAACP have all the political machinery down there. You have all the connections. I’m just a single mother in Chicago trying to raise my boy as best as I can.
Wilkins: Please understand, The NAACP has hundreds of cases. They’re all very important.
Mamie: Mr. Wilkins, this is the only case that I care about.
The whole Till family endured repeated death threats, obscene phone calls, and insulting letters. A police car guarded their home. All along her family supported her decisions. In these moments of support, we also see the growing anger that led to civil rights movement, as in this line of dialogue from Mamie Till’s father.
They all afraid that this fuss over Emmett is going to cause negroes to march down to Mississippi. Well, we ought to march down there and root out every one of them rednecks. It’s time for a change.
When Mamie Till’s family finally saw Emmett’s body, that had been tortured and sunk in the river, his face was so torn apart and swollen into a death mask that it was impossible to recognize his features. Joyce Barnes says that too many names of African Americans murdered in the Jim Crow South have been forgotten. Barnes reflects, “I think Emmett would have been one of those if she hadn’t found something within her faith, her community, her family to say I want the world to see what they did.”
Tens of thousands of people lined the blocks of the funeral home for a week to mourn Emmett Till and see his face. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat three months later, she said that she was thinking of Emmett Till. The play The Face of Emmett Till broadens this American story and celebrates Mamie’s activism and her spirit. It will be performed at the X*ACT theater Feb 14-23. For tickets, visit https://www.xeniaact.org.
At the theater, you can also see a pop-up exhibit from the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center about Jet magazine’s coverage of the Emmett Till story. The exhibit shows how African Americans chronicle their history when it is ignored by the mainstream press.