Ifa Bayeza’s powerful lynching trilogy moves on to part two: 'benevolence'


'benevolence' Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

Penumbra Theatre’s upcoming play is titled benevolence, all in lowercase. Why lowercase?

“It came out that way in my typewriter,” says playwright Ifa Bayeza. “I think that was, poetically, because there is a question. A small-b benevolence is more tentative than a capital B. Can it be granted? Is it possible to get to that level of grace when confronting some of the horrors of our racial history?”

The play is the second part of a trilogy about events surrounding the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a brutal hate crime that became emblematic of the systemic violence perpetrated on African-Americans.

In a way, you could think of benevolence as the third part of the trilogy. “As it turns out, I wrote the third play second,” says Bayeza. “So we’re actually doing the third play, benevolence. Penumbra has committed to doing all three, so That Summer in Sumner will be coming up.”

The production will be directed by Talvin Wilks, who helmed the Penumbra production of the trilogy’s first play, The Ballad of Emmett Till, in 2014. That play had its origins elsewhere, but Penumbra’s artistic director, Sarah Bellamy, committed to producing the next two plays as well, making this the world premiere of benevolence.

While The Ballad of Emmett Till centered on the 14-year-old boy himself, benevolence examines broader events surrounding the attack, contrasting the experiences of the white couple responsible for Till’s death with a black couple who are afraid to come forward as witnesses.

“It’s a very different approach to a similar landscape of storytelling,” says Wilks. “She’s showing us this culture of terrorism, [of] keeping black people in their place through acts of violence. The Ballad of Emmett Till built the story of Emmett. This, now, expands to deal with the actual culture that created such an environment where such an act would take place.”

The new plays are highly anticipated given the praise for The Ballad of Emmett Till and Bayeza’s storied history in theater and literature. She is the sister of, and was a collaborator with, the pathbreaking playwright Ntozake Shange, whose for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976) was staged in a powerful new production at Penumbra in 2018.

Wilks, who’s writing a history of African-American theater from the 1960s to the present, says that Bayeza “is very much woven into that history. In my mind, she’s part of the foundation of these groundbreaking works that lead us from the Black Arts Movement to the present day.”

Penumbra Theatre 
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul 
Through March 10; 651-224-3180