A sense of dread hangs over every moment of The Ballad of Emmett Till, even before the lights come up on Penumbra Theatre's triumphant production.
Some of that feeling stems from the real-life story behind the production — the horrific murder of an African-American teenager in Mississippi in 1955 that became a spark for the growing Civil Rights Movement. Once the show begins, that foreboding feeling is stoked by Talvin Wilks's sharp direction and the simple yet devastating set designed by Maruti Evans. At first glance, the set seems to be made simply of wooden planks with a central platform. But each plank — even the ones that make up the floor — is packed with writing that details the horrific final hours of Till's life.
Not that Ifa Bayeza's play is a dour history lesson. Emmett Till is a vivacious character, full of the hopes and interests and flaws of any 14-year-old boy, which makes his untimely death all the more devastating. Darrick Mosley brings the many facets of the title character to life, and though Mosley is no teenager, his youthful look helps to bridge the gap between actor and character. In the opening scenes, Mosley sets up Till's character — vibrant and loose, a snappy dresser who also deals with a stutter and the lingering effects of polio.
Till is enjoying a typical teenager's summer joys — having fun in the neighborhood, hanging out with relatives — until he begs to accompany his Uncle Mose down to his cotton farm in Mississippi. There he finds a different world — especially when it comes to race — and doesn't realize when he has violated the "code" separating the black and white worlds.
Five more actors take on the roles of the various characters in the play, from Till's mother to his Mississippi relatives to the men who eventually ended his life (and got off scot-free). This includes impressive turns from Sha' Cage and Greta Oglesby as Till's mother and grandmother, respectively. The audience sees the life leach out of their characters as the news is spread about Till's kidnapping and murder. Soon, this turns to pure heartbreak and rage as the women describe the condition of the body that was returned to them.
Mikell Sapp, T. Mychael Rambo, and H. Adam Harris play the men in Till's life, from his cousins to his beloved Uncle Mose. Rambo and Harris also have the toughest roles, as they not only play Till's relatives and neighbors, but also have to bring his murderers to life. In the later scenes, they are the bogeymen — arriving in the darkness, ripping a young man from his family, torturing and then killing him. The actors don't hold anything back in their portrayals, crafting frightening figures bent on destruction — all of which leads to a shattering finale.
There are other, modern specters hanging over the production. The murder of Trayvon Martin, for instance, is now part of the tapestry of Emmett Till's story. In the end, this is why the story of Emmett Till must be told, again and again.