The State of Mississippi Vs Emmett Till, Pegasus Players. The 1955 murder of Emmett Till is so horrifying that even a simple recitation of the facts is enough to turn one’s stomach. Vacationing in Mississippi, the 14-year-old Chicagoan was abducted at gunpoint from his uncle’s home, beaten, tortured, blinded, shot through the head, then drowned–all because he supposedly whistled at a white woman. His unremorseful murderers were never convicted.

The fact that this play was coauthored by Till’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, gives Till’s doomed trip to Mississippi and his mother’s search for justice even more impact. When Till’s mother opens the boy’s casket and itemizes his wounds, the effect on the audience is palpably painful. Even scenes that might seem oversimplified or implausible–such as a dream foreshadowing Till’s death or Mobley’s snub by an NAACP functionary–cannot be dismissed: this is essentially autobiography. Mobley’s contributions make the work agonizingly compelling, but coauthor David Barr has not sufficiently structured the material. The characters lack definition; one gets a decent sense of Mobley but not of her family.

Douglas Alan-Mann’s respectful staging is sluggishly paced and includes some tentative, flatly performed scenes–particularly those between Mobley and her parents in the first act and the conversations with Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees that open and close the play. Ultimately no consistently effective drama is created out of this horrific episode in American history. –Adam Langer