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The Ballad of Emmett Till

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Emmett Till was 14 years old in 1955. That was when he took a fateful trip from his hometown, Chicago, to visit relatives in a rural community on the Mississippi Delta. As a Child, Emmett was afflicted with polio. The disease left him with a limp. Young Till also spoke with a stutter. What's more, Emmett's father, Louis Till, was executed after being found guilty of raping two women and murdering another while serving in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War Two.

Adding insult to his various injuries, Emmett--in the heat of the summer of '55--was a Black teenager used to living in Big City, USA; suddenly, however, he's seen as a colored-boy deep in the segregated South. Little Emmett, affectionately known as Bobo, hasn't changed, but his environment has, drastically. Days after reportedly whistling at a white woman, named Carolyn Bryant, in a country store, Bobo Till was abducted from his Great-Uncle Moses' home by Roy Bryant (Carolyn's husband) and Bryant's half-brother, J.W. Milam. Three days later Emmett's tortured remains were inadvertently recovered from the Tallahatchie River by fishermen. Emmett Till had been beaten, shot, and thrown into the water with a seventy-pound cotton gin bound to his neck.

Emmett's mother, Mamie, insisted that his disfigured corpse be on display in an open-coffin funeral--saying afterward, "I wanted the world to see my baby." When the purported murderers, Bryant and Milam, were acquitted after the jury deliberated for a mere sixty-seven minutes (one juror stated "if we hadn't stopped to drink a (soda) pop, it wouldn't have taken that long") outrage spread across the nation and into Europe, firing the burners of an inchoate Civil Rights Movement.

Those are the brief set of facts surrounding Emmett Till's short life and constituting Ifa Bayeza's latest play The Ballad of Emmett Till--in its West Coast premiere at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre--a theatrical choreo-poem reminiscent of Ntozake Shange's boundary-busting, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.

Under the keen direction of Shirley Jo Finney The Ballad of Emmett Till is a belated theatrical homage to Till's life. Though the brutal killing is depicted -behind screens and in silhouettes--to bone-chilling effect, "Ballad" also conveys the joy that Emmett is said to have personified. Till transcended that limp of his, transforming it into a puppy dog swagger. His halting way with words provided a sort of poetic meter for Till, so full of rhyme and rhythm. (Interestingly, Director Finney happens to be Ntozake Shange's sister, as well as the dramaturge and set designer for the 1976 Off-Broadway premiere of enuf at the Anspacher Public Theatre).

A sensitive and touching show, Ballad relies on five performers to enact this highly stylized and quite moving tale of Till. But at the center of gravity here is the endearing Lorenz Arnell, performing as Emmett. Arnell's warmth and charm lend buoyancy and elation to a story whose sad end we know and see coming from the moment we take our seats in the intimate Fountain Theatre. We are unexpectedly uplifted by the sheer force-of-life with which Arnell infuses his characterization of the play's doomed namesake. Still, the other four ensemble members--Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Adenrele Ojo, and Karen Malina White--all provide impressive portrayals in multiple roles (White, for instance, plays a mean, temperamental young boy so vibrantly that we eagerly anticipate her channeling of this recurring character).

With period appropriate costuming by Naila Aladdin-Sanders; fluid choreography by Ameenah Kaplin; mood-altering lighting by Kathi O'Donohue; and a simple and versatile set designed by Scott Siedman--along with an indispensable sound-scape by David B. Marling -The Ballad of Emmett Till is a unique dramatization: emotional, informative, and refreshingly nonlinear in its take on the Till tragedy.

"The Ballad of Emmett Till" continues at The Fountain Theatre--5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles--through May 30. Show times are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are on Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 663-1525. For more information, visit www.FountainTheatre.com.

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.