Last night’s tribute to Studs Terkel at Steppenwolf, a staged reading from Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, was less to do with the life and death of Studs than life and death. In that sense it was a surprise–a moving, bracing one. And no moment was more bracing than the narrative of Mamie Till-Bradley, the mother of Emmett Till, whose oral history described, in clinical yet emotional detail, her identification of the mutilated body of her son. I don’t go to that many plays or movies or much else, but it’s been awhile since I’ve heard people actually gasp. Otherwise, the house was silent.

Till-Bradley’s monologue was the centerpiece of the performance, which I hesitate to describe as a staged reading. It’s a theatrical piece, and that account is the theme on which the other monologues serve as variations–the trauma surgeon explaining that families have to hear the word and see the body to accept the death of a loved one, the morbid public school teacher arguing that ignorance of mortality makes death the new pornography, the activist doctor‘s warning about our culture’s obliviousness to the subject. Of all the work’s subjects, it’s ultimately a devotional work about examination, about speaking and telling, and in that sense a wonderful tribute the man and his career.

I concur with Jonathan Messinger that there were two particularly transcendent moments–Till-Bradley’s monologue and that of Justin Hayford, cabaret singer and longtime Reader theater critic. The former brought silence on the crowd; the latter had it erupting in spontaneous applause as Hayford (performed by K. Todd Freeman) described riding a scooter down Michigan Avenue with a friend belting out numbers from A Chorus Line, a moment the friend held onto as he succumbed to AIDS. Freeman blended it into a theatrical number of “What I Did for Love,” joined by the a capella trio who were on hand for segues.

During the performance I heard some of my seatmates trying to figure out what the deal was with all the singing.

Studs was a DJ, perhaps first and foremost, and that moment tied it all in.