The Ballad of Emmett Till from Ensemble Theatre: A Staggering Work of Art

The setup:

The brutal murder by two white men of 14-year-old Emmett Till, an African-American, was a pivotal moment in America's Civil Rights movement, and is here chronicled from the point of view of his family, capturing both the joy in his brief life and the tragedy of his death.

The execution:

A largely bare stage is backed by a set that doubles effectively as a multiple screening area for slide projections which vividly remind us that this is 1955 in the South, place us in a car on a dirt road and allow us to witness, in blood-red silhouette, a primal illustration of man's inhumanity to man. This method of presenting Emmett's death mitigates somewhat the pain of watching, which might be close to unendurable, but does not permit us to escape the horror of this tragic event.

The phrase "bare stage" is deceptive, for it is populated by five brilliant actors, usually playing multiple roles, although Joseph "JoeP" Palmore plays only Emmett himself. And what actors they are! They switch like chameleons from persona to persona as the roles require, creating humor, poignancy, a sense of foreboding and the steely acceptance that led to an open casket, so that the beatings that preceded death could be viewed by all. The two women are Lee Waddell and Rachel Hemphill Dickson, and the two men are Broderick "Brod J" Jones and Kendrick "Kay" Brown. All are consummate actors. Palmore as Emmett emanates youthful brashness and spontaneity, an openness to adventure and a fierce pride in his carefully brushed white bucks, and we learn to like and admire him in a series of scenes that portray life in South Chicago, Emmett's home, and his life in Mississippi visiting relatives, where the murder took place.

The second act necessarily turns dark, as Emmett innocently steps "out of line" from the viewpoint of Mississippi racists, and events unfold not unlike a Greek tragedy. The two white men of history were found innocent in a trial, though they later admitted the crime, but the trial itself is touched on only briefly here, showing the testimony of the relative who saw the men take Emmett away, and of Emmett's mother. The emotional power of this work is staggering, and we see why this play, first premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and then performed in an extended run at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, comes to Houston trailing clouds of glory, including multiple awards.

Playwright Ifa Bayeza has shown wise judgment in using the family setting as the fulcrum for an event as wide as America, and remarkable skill in condensing a powerful story into a tale so intimate and enthralling that the audience shares deeply in the suffering. It is directed by Elizabeth Van Dyke with flawless taste and impressive compassion, and all connected with this work should know that they have been participants in a masterful production, touched with genius, and compelling as a work of art that extends far beyond the African-American community and reaches into the human heart.

This is the first production in the South, and the first by an African-American theater troupe. It is presented by The Ensemble Theatre in cooperation with the Houston Museum of African-American History.

The verdict:

A powerful human drama captures the rich, loving life of a family, before and as it experiences the tragic loss of its son, in a beautifully crafted play with inspired acting and direction. This is must-see theater, with a compelling, universal story that will engage the heart of everyone.

The Ballad of Emmett Till continues through February 26 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For information or ticketing, call 713-520-1269 or contact

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Jim Tommaney