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Emmett Till's Story Told in Play

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The brutal murder of a Chicago youth more than 50 years ago is coming to the Goodman Theatre stage. The death of Emmett Till helped spark the civil rights movement, but he was much more than an icon. The play called The Ballad of Emmett Till presents Till as a typical teen-ager. The piece draws on the memories of some of Till's childhood friends and family.

Listen to an 

extended interview with Emmett Till's cousin, Rev. Wheeler Parker Jr.

It's not every day that actors get to meet the characters they're playing. But that happened recently at the Goodman Theatre. Playwright Ifa Bayeza introduces the actors to Emmett Till's family and friends.


BAYEZA: Emmett, I want you to meet one of your childhood playmates.

BYRD: Oh, hi, it's so nice to meet you.

BAYEZA: Joseph Byrd.

BYRD: I'm Joseph. And what's your name?

COCHRAN: Anita, Anita Cochran.

BYRD: So nice to meet you.


COCHRAN: I remember him from the playground and from the neighborhood. He was a nice-looking kid, of course, and he flirted a lot. That's why he was so popular.


Till, of course, has become a symbol of the civil rights movement. But in this play, he's just like every other teenage boy. That's how one of his cousins, Heloise Woods Aldridge, remembers Till, who's nickname was Bobo or Bo.


ALDRIDGE: We'd all be sitting waiting to see what Bo's gonna do next. They had what they call a victory garden across the street from my great-grandmother's house. And he would go out in the garden and get little garden snakes, and put them in his pocket, come back in and scare all of us kids. We'd be running all over the place. That's the type of person he was. He was a fun-loving person.


He liked the girls, but especially Aldridge.


ALDRIDGE: My husband today had a picture of me, and he would sell that picture to Bo and then steal it back, then sell it to him again. Everybody just wanted to be in his company.


Grade school classmate, Carole Adkins, remembers Till liking lots of girls.


ADKINS: I had a very good girlfriend of mine he really liked. I remember him going over to the school store and putting a penny in the gumball machine and getting a ring out for her. It was a plastic ring.

ambi: pulls out photo

ADKINS: This is the class he should have come out in. 

Adkins pulls out a laminated picture of her elementary school graduating class from 1956. Till would never graduate. In the summer of 1955, he begged his mother to visit family in Mississippi . An argument relived in the play:


TILL: I go to Argo by myself, go to downtown Chicago to pay the store bills by myself. Do rest of this laundry by myself.

MAMIE: Mississippi is not downtown, it's down South.


MAMIE: You don't speak until you're spoken to.

TILL: I already do that, I know how to be polite.

MAMIE: I'm not talking about that. If a white woman even approaches, you have to move off the sidewalk.

TILL: Are you serious?

MAMIE: I am very serious, you do not look at them.


PARKER: The mores and the culture, he had no idea.


Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr. was Till's cousin, who went to Mississippi with Till.


PARKER: They didn't want him to come, because they knew the way he liked jokes and fun, he could get in trouble. There were afraid of what did happen, they were afraid, could have happened.


And what did happen was the story most people know. Till whistled at a white storekeeper's wife, and four days later, a group of men came for him in the middle of the night.


PARKER: Man, there was terror. That's when the terror began in me. They done told me about how they do people. I hear ‘em talking about, you got a fat boy from Chicago ? My heart, I started shaking. It was so dark, see, you couldn't even see your hand before your face. I could just feel somebody's going to die, I say, I'm fixing to die, that's what I said.


Parker lived, Till's mutilated body was found in the river. Till's cousin, Heloise Woods Aldridge, remembers hearing the news.


ALDRIDGE: I was afraid to go to sleep at night. So, a lot of times I didn't sleep. I would sit up in bed with my light on. It took awhile before I could really just put it to rest.


Despite the horrific end to Till's young life, the play's director, Oz Scott, says there's also lots of joy in the piece.


SCOTT: One of the things I try to keep stressing is some people say, I don't know if I want to see a play about Emmett Till. It's such a horrible story. But this boy was 14 years on this world, and it was 14 years of life and fun and prankster.


PARKER: Emmett speaks louder in death, than he would, if he had lived.


Again, Reverend Wheeler Parker Jr.:


PARKER: So a lot of things happened, a lot of good came out of it. A lot of people gave their lives through the years, and we don't want to waste that. We don't want him to die in vain.


Racism is still a problem today. And Parker says we need to know history, or risk repeating it. The Ballad of Emmett Till opens with previews on Saturday.

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