Theatre review: ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ at the Fountain Theatre


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While visiting relatives in rural Mississippi in the summer of 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till, a bright-eyed African American youth from Chicago, was abducted, tortured and killed – all for the “crime” of allegedly whistling at a white woman.

That outrage is the subject of Ifa Bayeza’s fine and furious play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” now at the Fountain. Those familiar with Till’s history may be shocked to find that “Ballad” is, initially at least, warm and vibrant, with a surprising quotient of laughter. That’s part of Bayeza’s careful design to make Till’s ultimate fate all the more harrowing.


In that she succeeds, brilliantly. Make no mistake: You will be devastated.

Director Shirley Jo Finney’s purposeful, precisely syncopated staging is impressively specific in both movement and meaning. In the title role, the hugely likable Lorenz Arnell captures the buoyancy of his doomed character. As Till’s mother, who so bravely insisted on an open casket so that the world could see her son’s appalling injuries, Karen Malina White exudes dignity and anguish in equal measure. Bernard Addison, Rico E. Anderson and Adenrele Ojo, who round out the cast, are all superb, as are the production elements, particularly David B. Marling’s sound design and Kathi O’Donohue’s lighting. Ameenah Kaplan’s first-rate choreography augments Finney’s near-balletic blocking.

The reliably brilliant Finney took over when the play’s original director, Ben Bradley, was murdered. Her luminous staging stands as a fitting tribute to the beloved Bradley, whose own incandescent career was so shockingly extinguished.

– F. Kathleen Foley

“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3. $25-$28. (323) 663-1525. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.