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New play looks at the lives touched by Emmett Till's death

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Dame Jasmine Hughes and Darrick Mosley rehearse a scene.
Dame Jasmine Hughes and Darrick Mosley, playing Beulah "Bea" Melton and Clinton Melton, rehearse a scene from Penumbra Theatre's production of "benevolence" inside the theater in St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In August of 1955, a 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till was lynched for supposedly flirting with a white woman. A new play, "benevolence," looks at the events surrounding his death, and the repercussions still being felt today.

Till's death, and the acquittal of his killers, galvanized the civil rights movement.

"benevolence" is the second play by Ifa Bayeza that deals with his murder. The first, "The Ballad of Emmett Till," captured his youthful spirit. Now she shifts her gaze to two couples living in the Mississippi Delta — one white, the other black — and their connection to Till's death.

In the play, Clinton Melton comes home from his shift at the gas station, where he saw a truck covered in Emmett Till's blood. He wants to report his suspicions, but his wife is set against the idea.

"I need to tell someone," he says.

"Benevolence" director Talvin Wilks
"benevolence" director Talvin Wilkes.
Courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

"Melton, think!" she answers. "You can't. You can't tell anyone."

Bayeza's play is not a documentary, but it does pull from FBI transcripts, courtroom testimony, NAACP field reports as well as her own interviews with family members. She said Clinton Melton's name is not as well known as Till's, but their stories are connected.

"Clinton was murdered in broad daylight by a man named Kimball that reputedly was one of Emmett's other assailants," she said.

"benevolence" also focuses on Carolyn Bryant, the woman who claimed Till not only whistled at her but grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities. Years later she recanted that part of her testimony.

Carolyn's husband Roy and his brother killed Emmett Till. They admitted to it publicly, in an interview, after a grand jury declined to indict them.

Roy also abused Carolyn. Bayeza said this story sits uneasily between racial justice and the current #metoo movement. 

"How do I treat this character, given my sensitivity toward being a woman and then my ire being a black person — trying to balance those two?" she asked. "And as an artist, really wanting to be generous of spirit with all of the characters so that I treat them with humanity and with understanding — to be empathetic without being sympathetic?"

Sara Marsh and Peter Christian Hansen  rehearse a scene from "Benevolence"
Sara Marsh and Peter Christian Hansen, acting as Caroline Bryant and Roy Bryant, rehearse a scene from "benevolence" inside of Penumbra Theatre.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Director Talvin Wilks said it's important to revisit Till's story in order to fully understand the challenges we face today — challenges such as mass incarceration and voter disenfranchisement.

"Everyone should embrace these names and know these stories," Wilkes said.

Bayeza explained the aspiration that led her to name the play "benevolence:"

"Because we might not get to truth, we might not get to justice," she said. "As, certainly, neither of those really emerged in this saga. But if we as humanity can get to a position of benevolence — which is a greater understanding of one another, empathy for one another, and forgiveness — then that's another beginning."

Performances of "benevolence" begin Wednesday night and run through March 10 at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

Correction (Feb. 13, 2019): Talvin Wilks' name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.