It isn’t often that you have a numbing and chilling glimpse of what it may have been like to have a really horrifying experience, but Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of Ifa Bayeza’s “The Ballad of Emmett Till” does exactly that as powerfully as any work of art I can recall. The brilliance of this work is that it is able to take a name whose 1955 lynching sparked such national outrage that it launched the civil rights movement and make him a flesh and blood character. The first act could well be any family portrait, as we meet Emmett (Joseph Anthony Byrd), a gregarious 14-year-old with a bit of a stutter who makes up for his shyness through talking loudly and telling jokes in an attempt to get everyone to like him. His mother (Deidrie Henry) is overprotective and concerned, and while their relationship is revealed as a close and tender one, the absence of Emmett’s father and the onset of puberty have Emmett attempting to reach out to a wider and more masculine world than the cocoon of his maternal home by wanting to visit his uncle and cousins in Mississippi. Mom tries to convince him that the segregated South is not like Chicago but ultimately gives in to Emmett’s charm and free spirit. We watch Emmett go down South and become reacquainted with his relatives and his buying chewing gum in a store alone with a young white women. Emmett is so nervous that he whistles as much as talks, but the ramifications of this are unclear until nights later when a posse of white men come and take Emmett from his uncle’s home in the middle of the night “to teach him a lesson.” The second act concentrates on the aftermath of the death, including a very tender scene where Emmett’s mother tries to look beyond the horror of Emmett’s badly beaten and decomposed face to positively identify whatever features she can and what went into her decision to have the world see what she saw at his funeral. But the most powerful scenes are of Emmett himself, in the mind’s eye of those he loved, reacting to what is going on at his murder trial. His “voice” becomes their voice of conscience as often do the voices of those who love us and know us inside and out but precede us in death. Yes, the second act does feature some horrifying scenes of Emmett being beaten and even drowning, and they are very hard to sit through. But it was part of this young man’s journey, and it is a dark chapter of the journey that we need to be a witness to, to truly understand how much this pivotal incident forever transformed race relations in this country. (Dennis Polkow)
At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, (312)443-3800. This production is now closed.