The State of Mississippi…and the Face of Emmett Till

Pegasus Players

After Emmett Till died, late in the summer of 1955, his body was shipped from Mississippi back home to Chicago in a big crate. Inside that crate, according to Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, was another crate; and inside that was Emmett, naked, packed in lime. Mrs. Mobley made a careful assessment of the remains. One of Emmett’s eyes was gone, the other nearly so. The back of his skull was smashed, possibly from a blow with an ax. There was a bullet in his head, and a hole through which Mrs. Mobley could see daylight. His nose was mangled as if with a knife. His body was bloated from having been dumped in the Tallahatchie River, where he was weighted down by an old gin mill fan secured to his neck with barbed wire. He was 14 and black and all this had been done to him because he was said to have come on to a white woman.

The word emmett means “truth” in Hebrew. I don’t know whether his mother had that fact in mind when she named him, but it turned out to be apt. Because what was lying naked in the crates from Mississippi was the truth about jim crow. The truth about “separate but equal.” The truth about being black in the American south in 1955.

Mrs. Mobley quite literally exposed that truth to the world, insisting that Emmett be put on view in an open casket for four days. The undertaker dressed Emmett in a suit and attempted to piece his poor head together, but the truth was ineradicable. Jet magazine published photos. It was a grisly publicity stunt–carried out by a grieving mother no less–but it succeeded in turning one of the tumblers that unlocked the civil rights movement. Just three months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama.

Mobley went on trying to tell her son’s truth until her death on January 6, 2003. A play, The State of Mississippi vs Emmett Till, was one means to that end. Written by her and David Barr III, it premiered at Pegasus Players in 1999. Now it’s back in modified form as The State of Mississippi…and the Face of Emmett Till. I didn’t see the original so I don’t know what’s changed. But whatever it is can’t possibly matter, because this show has a serious and essential flaw that won’t go away no matter what anybody does.

The insurmountable problem of Mobley’s play is Mobley herself. For all that it’s supposed to enhance the integrity of the work, her presence as author and central character actually subverts it, drawing it further and further away from the only authentic truth this sad narrative has to offer: that of Emmett’s battered corpse.

The simple fact that Mobley is telling her own story here ought to put us on our guard, however scrupulous she may actually have been. This isn’t fiction; it’s an important piece of American history on which many things–including reputations–ride. We have to be suspicious of a telling rendered by someone who lived so long and intimately–and traumatically–with the material. Someone who spent over half her long life burnishing, protecting, memorializing, even institutionalizing it. Someone with so much at stake. And it certainly doesn’t help when our suspicions are borne out. Consciously or not, Mobley used The State of Mississippi…and the Face of Emmett Till to put her spin on events and settle accounts. You can see it in the play’s doting portrayal of Emmett. Establishing the boy’s complete victimhood was apparently so important to Mobley and Barr that they concocted nonsensical scenarios to place him beyond even a hint of blame. Their theory about Emmett’s alleged attempt to pick up a 21-year-old white woman–he wasn’t whistling at her, they suggest, he was making whistling noises while trying to keep from stuttering–not only plays absurdly onstage but contradicts the testimony of a cousin who was there.

Naturally Mobley and Barr depict Emmett’s murderers and their legal accomplices as slack-jawed redneck animals. That goes almost without saying. What’s surprising is the abuse heaped on Roy Wilkins–of all people!–the longtime, legendary executive secretary of the NAACP. Evidently Wilkins was no friend of Mobley, and she pays him back in the play, depicting him as an unfeeling bureaucrat on the wrong side of history. (One senses that Barr tried to mitigate his collaborator’s vehemence in this and other instances. The result is not so much moderation as mixed messages.)

Given the didactic mission of The State of Mississippi…and the Face of Emmett Till, it’s to be expected that certain passages will be stilted or contrived. And they are. The script is structured less for flow than for history. In effect it’s two plays covering many of the same events–and making many of the same points–first from Mobley’s perspective as they were unfolding, then from the vantage point of the trial at which Emmett’s murderers were so obscenely acquitted. Either one of these plays might have been sufficient; to give us both at one sitting is redundant and tiring.

For all its clunky, propagandistic overkill, however, The State of Mississippi … and the Face of Emmett Till has its moments of genuine power–though not the ones you’d expect. Under Douglas Alan-Mann’s slack direction, the important, potentially explosive passages usually fail to ignite. Emmett’s death scene, for instance, is undercut by blocking that gives us way too clear a view of every pulled punch. And the crucial scene in which Mobley inspects Emmett’s body falls apart as her grim task devolves into aimless poking around. No, the bits that actually work are little ones, like Emmett’s playful imitations of Marlon Brando and the “I dunno–whadda you wanna do?” exchange in Marty. Though Denzel Henderson is physically wrong for the part–a cute little pudge as opposed to the thickset, mannish original–he enlivens Emmett with wit and mischief. Amos Ellis also provides vivid flashes with his volcanic embodiment of Mobley’s stepfather, Henry Spearman. The gesture of forgiveness he offers Moses Wright, the uncle from whose home Emmett was kidnapped, is worth the entire three-hour playing time of this production.

But I don’t know that it makes up for Barbara L.W. Myers’s disappointing Mamie. Though admirable in its dignity, Myers’s performance lacks the one thing that gives Mobley’s actions coherence: anger. It’s impossible to conceive of a mother taking inventory of her martyred son’s wounds without anger. Impossible to conceive of her putting his body on public display without anger. Impossible even to conceive of the score settling that goes on in this play without anger. If Emmett Till’s body was the truth of American racism, Mamie Till Mobley’s anger was the power that brought it so shockingly into the open. Myers’s failure to express, much less explore, this essential emotion leaves a hole at the center of what Mobley no doubt considered her valedictory utterance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.