Ebony S. Muhammad (EM): Let’s talk about this major production at The Ensemble Theatre kicking off February 2nd through February 26th , “The Ballad of Emmett Till”…
JOE P (JP): Yeah!
EM: Tell me about this piece, your role as Emmett Till, your co-stars and what the audience can anticipate.
JP: It’s a story about a young 14-year-old boy from Chicago who begged his mother to let him go visit his family in Mississippi, and as reluctant as she was she let him go. While he was down there he was allegedly buying some bubble gum in a store with his friend and allegedly whistled at a white woman and grabbed her hand, as they say. From that, a few days later, he was kidnapped, beaten and tortured to death. He was shot and thrown in the Tallahatchie River. They didn’t find his body for three days. When they did, they tried to hurry up and bury him in Mississippi. His mother made a few phone calls to everyone she could in Chicago to stop that process from happening and had the body brought back to Chicago. Instead of just burying him she decided to have an open casket service to let America see what was still going on in 1955 as far as the travesties and what happened to her young boy and racism in the country. That whole situation actually set off certain things that made the Civil Rights Movement happen. If you ever listen to Rosa Parks’ interviews, she says that the reason she sat and did not get up was because she was thinking about Emmett Till the whole time and what happened to that little boy and how she was not going to take it anymore. She was fed up.
The show is not necessarily about the bad things that happened to him. That’s what everybody thinks. They come and think that they’re going to be depressed and hurt and crying. However, the story is allowing you to get to know who Emmett Till was. Usually when people hear about Emmett Till they think about the murder, but nobody actually knows who he was as a person and the type of little boy he was. He was actually a very unique boy. He was the center of attention. He was a smooth, clean clothing loving boy. He had a stuttering problem. He always wanted to be the class clown and just loved life. He was a little grown man. He was full of life, a lot of life. Once you get to know that and learn who he was and build that relationship with Emmett as a person, it makes you understand and feel for that death that much more. Now you’ve built a relationship with that young man and found out who he was. That’s what I tried to bring through on stage. You get to see how lovable and full of life the young boy was so when the bad part does happen you really have a sense of the pain his mom and the country went through and what made people want to stand up and say, “We just can’t take this no more”.
The cast is awesome! You have Kendrick Brown, Broderick Jones, Rachel Dickson and Lee Waddell. The original play started out with 14 characters and you had to have 14 actors to do it. The Playwright decided that was too much and wanted to keep the same amount of characters but not as many actors. Therefore the other four characters besides myself have to change into almost four different characters each and have to shape shift throughout the entire play. One moment you may see me talking to one as my cousin and the next moment they’re the white man that’s coming to kidnap me. They switch their characters so thoroughly that you don’t even know that they were the other person. It’s a beautiful thing. That’s what I love this art.
The people will love this show. It’s exciting. You’ll have fun, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll know the story. It’s a great piece to put this new generation on. This new generation hardly knows about your Harriet Tubmans, your Nat Turners and your Emmett Tills, because they’re just not familiar with that time and they’re not given that information. Some don’t even care about those types of issues anymore. In regards to those who do think they know about the story of Emmett Till, we did a discussion after the preview last Sunday, and all of the adults were like, “I’ve always known about the story, but I didn’t know about all these details”. The Playwright did a really good job and interviewed a lot of Emmett Till’s family members. Many don’t know that the white people involved had a few Black people that were helping them kidnap Emmett Till. There were a few who helped beat Emmett Till. They were in debt to the white boys, but the fact that there were some Black people involved in his kidnap and murder is amazing.
EM: Wow. The extent that I knew of Black people being involved was just turning their head in the other direction. When I watched the documentary a while ago, there was one brother being interviewed who was the one who saw the blood on the back of the truck and was told to wash it off. He didn’t ask any questions. He did was he was told to do.
JP: Right. He was the one who asked the other brother what happened, and that brother was one of the Black men who were involved. He asked that brother was that blood on the back of the truck and he told him don’t worry about it. He was one who was either holding Emmett down or beating him. The white man had that much power over them. They didn’t want to beat Emmett Till by themselves so they picked up a few Black men who would do it for them.
EM: Another thing about that documentary I watched that disturbed me at the time, and I’m sure it’s because it didn’t capture the story in its entirety, was the way in which the uncle was portrayed as having allowed those white men to come into his home and take Emmett Till with little to no resistance. It made me think of the mindset of some of our people in Mississippi. For instance, that lynching that took place in 2010 of Jermaine Carter was investigated by The Final Call Newspaper. The mindset of those within that town showed how they’re still afraid for their life to speak up about what they felt.
JP: That’s just the mindset of that state. I have family in Alabama who are the same way. Even though the country can be moving ahead, it’s like they’re stuck in time. That’s one of Mississippi’s slogans on their highway signs; “Mississippi: The Place That Time Forgot. It also says, “Mississippi: The Most Southern Place On Earth”. It doesn’t get more southern than Mississippi.
The uncle did resist. A lot of people thought that he didn’t. You have to understand that this was a time where Black people didn’t even look in the face of white people when talking to them. If a white man came and yelled directly in your face, of course you would be intimidated especially if you have all these white men at your house and inside of your house and they all have 45’s and flashlights asking for “the nigger who talks a lot”. That’s what happened. He didn’t just let him go, he tried his best, but there was nothing he could do. They went after his wife, they were going to shoot her. They said if he didn’t stop pleading they would take every “nigger boy” in that house. Therefore, in order for him to save everybody … he didn’t want to let Emmett go. In the interviews he talks about what he had to live with; the fact that he didn’t give up his life to keep Emmett here. Later when the trial took place, he became the first Black man to ever point at a white man in trial in an accusatory manner. He had to move out of Mississippi to Chicago after that, because he couldn’t go back home. The Ballad of Emmett Till is a good play addressing all of that, and I’m happy that it’s coming out during Black History Month.
EM: Thank you very much for sharing so much of your journey and what we all have to look forward to with your latest play, The Ballad of Emmett Till! Is there anything you would like to add?
JP: Thank YOU! Everybody please get your tickets. I believe the show is almost sold out. There’s only 8 or less shows left for the whole run. Ticket sales are going crazy! I’m sure that has something to do with it being Black History Month. I suggest you hurry up and get your tickets as soon as possible at www.EnsembleHouston.com You can also call The Ensemble at 713 520 0055 or you can just go up to the theater at 3535 Main Street.
You can read Part 1 of JOE P’s personal and professional journey in theatre and performing arts in this month’s issue of H2H Magazine! #Power #Purpose
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