‘Trial in the Delta’ lets audiences see up close how Emmett Till’s killers got away with murder
Focal point of Collaboraction’s court transcript adaptation is the strong ensemble playing slayers, lawyers, witnesses and the teen’s steely mother.
Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in 1955, kidnapped from the Money, Mississippi, home where the young Chicagoan was visiting his cousins for the summer. The two white men charged with Till’s murder were acquitted in a trial that Collaboraction Theatre dramatizes with “Trial in the Delta: The Murder of Emmett Till.”
The outcome of that infamous trial — like the monumental historic legacy shaped by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, and her decision to have an open-casket funeral for her son — is never in doubt. Brothers Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were acquitted of killing Till. After the trial, both bragged to Look magazine that they were, in fact, the murderers.
Acquittal notwithstanding, the lynching of Emmett Till was a watershed in the civil rights movement. The open-casket funeral yielded photos published around the world of Emmett’s disfigured body. The brutality of the death galvanized activists across the country.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center, 740 E. 56th Pl.
In their commission for Collaboraction, Chicago playwrights G. Riley Mills and Willie Round wrestled close to 400 pages of trial transcripts into a taut 90-minute drama. Co-directors Anthony Moseley and Dana Anderson create a subtly immersive experience, putting the audience in the center of the sweltering Tallahatchie County Courthouse where the trial unfolded.
The production is minimally hampered by issues that come with staging a direct transcript of any courtroom proceeding: There is repetition, lawyerly posturing, paper-shuffling and legalese. Objections are frequent, giving the pacing a stuttering, stop-and-start feel at times. Juries file in and out.
Yet as the witnesses take the stand one by one, each emerging from deep in the audience and walking to the stage, “Trial in the Delta” makes the audience a witness to both the injustice of the trial and the legacy of Emmett Till. The trial plays out on set/video designer Emmy Weldon’s minimalist courtroom. The jury box holds 12 empty chairs, all facing a witness box adjacent. Projected images provide visual context: silver-toned photos of rural homes, color shots scrolling through seminal moments in the civil rights movement and Till family photos.
But the focal point is Anderson and Moseley’s strong ensemble, the group anchored by Kayla Franklin as Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley. Franklin conveys the steeliness of a warrior, carrying herself with a sense of purpose that makes the sneering arrogance of Bryant (Tyler Burke) and Milam (Matt Miles) seem puny.
The witnesses who take the stand are memorable. First up is Till’s uncle, Mose Wright (a deceptively stoic Darren Jones).
He moves like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, yet he’s positively steadfast in the electrifying moment when he stands and points to the man who abducted his nephew, unflinching even as it becomes clear his testimony could endanger his life.
Sheriff George Smith (Matt Rosin) struts forward giving a smugly collegial nod to Judge Curtis Swango (Richard Alan Baiker) before embarking on testimony that has him tossing around the n-word with the casually violent impunity of someone who knows he can get away with it.
Lead prosecutor Gerald Chatham (Andy Luther) is on the defensive throughout, while defense attorney J.J. Breland (Steve Silver) has a confidence that quickly curdles into arrogance.
We hear from hollow-eyed teenager Willie Reed (a haunting Mysun Aja Wade), the last person to see Emmett alive, the trauma of the experience as raw as a wound. An indelible scene occurs when Roy Bryant’s wife Carolyn (Maddy Brown) testifies she was grabbed and verbally accosted by Emmett. The audience has reason for doubt; Carolyn Bryant reportedly recanted some of that testimony late in life. Brown sells it like gospel, her weaponized, doe-eyed tears rendering her the victim.
The closing arguments from Breland’s defense are packed with buzzwords that will be familiar to anyone even passingly familiar with contemporary political rhetoric. Service to God, Country and the primacy of American manhood is invoked, as are the founding fathers. “None of us are safe,” he asserts, if the good “Anglo-Saxons” of the jury capitulate to “outside agitators” and fail to acquit.
In its final passages, “Trial in the Delta” has Till-Bradley moving away from the courtroom and addressing the audience as if it were a jury. Her son’s maimed body forced people to reckon with “the manifestation of racial hatred,” Till-Bradley asserts. As long as that reckoning continues, “Trial in the Delta” will be an invaluable drama.