Stalled Justice: Bringing The Tragic Tale of Emmett Till to The Local Stage

by Executive Editor Timantha Norman

On the heels of the US government finally passing legislation to classify lynching as a federal crime in the form of a bill named the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act in recognition of the heinous slaying of the young Black teen at the hands of white supremacists in 1955, North Tulsa-based theatre company Theatre North plan to shine a renewed spotlight on the horrendous event through the play The Face of Emmett Till. Although it has been over 65 years since Till’s death, this issue continues to sadly echo out in countless acts of racial violence and terror that have permeated the DNA of our nation from the decades immediately following throughout decades up to the present day.  As US Representative Bobby Rush stated upon the passage of the act, “You only need to look at the events in Charlottesville to be reminded that not too long ago rallies such as those resulted in the lynching of innocent African Americans.”

I spoke with playwright David Barr III about his love for theatre, his thoughts on the lack of diversity in available roles for Black thespians, the importance of bringing Emmett Till’s story to a new generation locally, and Till’s mother’s vision for the future of our society.

Norman: What led to your love for theatre?

Barr: I started my artistic career as a character actor in The Street at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia. I was studying Mass Media/Journalism and Speech Communication with an emphasis in Theater Arts at Hampton Institute at the time. It was thought those three years at Colonial Williamsburg where I developed an obsession for researching, preserving, and protecting the legacy of my African ancestry, especially during our time here in North America. Embodying real life Black characters, men who actually lived, worked, and somehow survived their degrading enslavement in Colonial Virginia was magical. I realized that I didn’t need a fancy soundtrack, theme music, phony baloney special effects, or to make a dramatic statement to elicit a desired reaction from a perfect stranger. I discovered that there was great power in making a crowd, strangers who often came to me with misconceptions about what Black life was, totally rethink their presumptions about an entire race of people they only thought they knew. I realized that I certainly could make them laugh and cry, but more importantly, I could make them think. If I stayed true and forthright in telling our history as it was, I could solicit sympathy and an empathy that could touch their hearts and envelop their spirits. Dr. Ellis taught me to do that, all of that. He was and still is deeply passionate about African and African American history and how we are all interconnected.  

Norman: Do you feel as though diversity in theatre representation has improved over the years?

Barr: I think we’re getting there, even though at times it seems for every one giant leap forward we take, we often get yanked two “Mother May I?” steps backwards. I believe the myriad of socially challenging and boundary-breaking works that have come about the past 30+ years from the likes of the legendary August Wilson, to Kia Corthron, Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage, and Tarell Alvin McCraney have been thrilling and inspiring to see them explode into our collective consciousness. I’d just like to see more of these wonderfully written stage works transferred over toward the film side and more opportunities afforded to the wonderfully talented theatrical African American actors, designers, and, of course, the directors. That said, I absolutely love how artists like Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Ava DuVernay, and Anna Deavere Smith have been able to vacillate between the stage and screen. We need to see more of that. 

Norman: What led you to write this play about such an important but difficult topic?

Barr: Not to sound too presumptuous, but I think every young Black man or woman in America of a certain age can tell you where they were the first time they saw the picture of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mangled face in JET magazine. Meeting, working with, and traveling alongside his courageous and devoted mother, Mrs. Mamie Till-Mobley, inspired me to dedicate the best of what I have to bringing the story of her little boy, her only child, justice. As Mother Mobley left the tiny, backwoods courtroom in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, she accurately predicted that if the confessed kidnappers and killers of her son were not convicted, it would be open season on Black children. Sadly, she had no idea how prescient she would be. Ask the mothers of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Oscar Grant III, Freddie Gray, LaTanya Haggerty, Trayvon Martin, LaQuan McDonald, and Tamir Rice what I mean by that. I want the audience to see, up close and personal, just how destructive and brutal mindless violence can be against our children, the most vulnerable of us all.

Norman: What do you all hope to achieve by showcasing this play in Tulsa at this particular time in our nation’s history?

Barr: I simply want what Mrs. Mobley wanted. If seeing this can prevent one more tragedy similar to what happened to her precious son from occurring, then we’ve done our job. If it makes one person in the audience stop and think—if just for a split second-what the human cost and the subsequent collateral damage that would be caused by continuing the kind of hatred that caused this senseless brutality, I feel the play and the production will have been successful.    

To learn more about the programming offered through Theatre North, please visit their Facebook page.

Photo description: David Barr III with Mamie Till-Mobley (Emmett’s mother) in the living room of her south-side Chicago home in August of 1999 shortly before the world premiere of the play.