The Emmett Project


Atrocities pile up singly and in masses. Casually and as a consequence of careful planning. Independently and under the aegis of legitimate authority. Six million Jews in the Holocaust. Thirty million Soviet citizens under Stalin. Eighteen million Africans in the slave trade. Seventeen young men by way of Jeffrey Dahmer. Rwanda. Bosnia. Cambodia. You’d think that at some point we’d simply run out of people to kill–or at the very least acknowledge this sort of thing as a form of normality and choose not to be shocked by it.

But perversely and in the face of all logic, many of us make the opposite choice, actually cultivating emotions like indignation and sorrow in response to vast crimes. And who’s to say that’s a complete waste of time? When millions of people turn out to protest a war before it even begins, it becomes possible to believe that a certain amount of progress is being made empathywise. One dares to dream of an actual consensus against killing large numbers of people.

Art can help. From Euripides down through Goya and on to Oliver Stone, some artists have taken it as their primary responsibility to reawaken our sense of horror, to remind us–viscerally–what it is, not only for us but for others, to suffer. (Maybe arousing empathic feelings was the first job of the artist, starting with the shamans who were expected to secure an animal’s permission and forgiveness prior to a hunt.) The Neo-Futurists assume that responsibility with The Emmett Project, a theatrical lecture on the peculiarly American atrocity of lynching that draws its title–and its empathic heart–from the story of an African-American kid named Emmett Till.

Emmett was all of 14 years old in the summer of 1955 when he went down from Chicago to spend time with relatives in Money, Mississippi. Hanging out in front of a store one day, he boasted to some pals that he had a white girlfriend back home. Somebody answered that if he was so good with white girls he should make a play for Carolyn Bryant, the 21-year-old woman who ran the store. Emmett apparently took the dare. He entered the store and made some kind of suggestion to Bryant; he may also have whistled at her. Early the next morning her husband, Roy, showed up along with his half brother J.W. Milam at the house where Emmett was staying. Bryant and Milam took Emmett away with them. A few days later Emmett’s severely beaten, bloated body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. There was a hole in his head where his ear had been big enough to see daylight through.

Emmett’s fierce mother, Mamie Bradley, made a cause celebre of her son’s murder by putting his body on display–disfigured as it was–in an open casket. Though nowhere near as incendiary as Mamie, The Emmett Project takes a similar approach, making Emmett embody the entire vicious business of lynching and its thousands of victims.

It’s September 1955, and there’s an empty seat at Emmett’s old school in Chicago. Reading pages ripped from textbooks, four of Emmett’s classmates set the historical–and metaphorical–context: “In 1899, Emmett was murdered 85 times….In 1911, Emmett was murdered 67 times….In 1930 Emmett was murdered 20 times….” They spend the rest of the show bouncing between Emmett’s story and those of three other victims of notorious lynchings: Sam Hose, who suffered a gruesome redneck version of the death of a thousand cuts, losing his fingers, hands, ears, genitals, and facial skin before being burned alive by a mob estimated at 2,000; Will Potter, who was shot to death firing-squad-style; and James Cameron, who lived to write a book about his lynching.

These stories–meant to be understood, of course, as a single epic narrative, a “Ballad of Emmett Till” as the Victim With a Thousand Faces–instruct both the heart and mind. Almost as shocking as the lynchings themselves are certain period details, like a 1955 editorial pointedly likening Roy Wilkins of the NAACP to a jungle witch doctor.

But the Neo-Futurists’ telling can be wildly uneven. The conceit of having the four classmates write certain messages on a blackboard, for instance, only occasionally discloses something new; the rest of the time it just brings the show to a dead halt. Likewise a longish play within the play is amusingly melodramatic but completely digressive. And a final act of symbolic violence comes off more like bad manners than an expression of existential pain.

Still, the ensemble plays it all with great charm and conviction. As creators of The Emmett Project along with director Chloe Johnston, they clearly own this material in every possible sense. Lisa May Simpson excels as an unlikely diva in one jazzy musical number. Linara Washington conveys a look-at-me energy that’s perfect for the classroom context. John Byrnes is all wise guy irony. And though Steven F. McClain was having trouble getting his mouth around some of the language on opening night, his command of his eyebrows was superb.

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