Till New York Musical Festival 2019
From left, Denielle Marie Gray, Tyla Collier, Taylor A. Blackman, Dwelvan David, Devin L. Roberts and Judith Franklin
Credit Russ Rowland
Till is a musical that never could have been made in 1955, the year that Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. In the tradition of African American musicals where the characters generally are featured in happy dancing moments of life, its horrific theme is rare.
Emmett Till is also unlike hundreds of murdered African Americans preceding him who mostly remain unknown. Nor is he like those who would be murdered after him, like MLK Jr. and Medgar Edgars, leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
He was an ordinary fun loving boy never known to be in trouble, raised in Chicago by a single mother. But he was also part of a larger family, those who had not migrated north for a new life, those who wanted him to come visit them in Mississippi, albeit a place with dangers that this young man was not able to truly comprehend.
This musical also differs from many others works about Emmett, in that the true hero that emerges is his mother Mamie Till. Her failings in her life and fears for his well being are the struggles of a great hero. He will die but she will arise from her grief, determined that this violent act will not be forgotten.
But now a few words about the outstanding cast who brought this to the stage at the New York Musical Festival.
Denielle Marie Gray is Emmett’s mother who is supported by Taylor A. Blackman as Emmett, and Judith Franklin as Alma, her mother/Emmett’s grandmother.
Every great musical has an unforgetable song, and Gray’s rendition of Cherish the Child, places it with the great love ballads.
She is well supported by a cast who move in and out of multiple roles and back and forth between Chicago and Money, Miss. When Tyla Collier and Devin L. Roberts portray the sinister white couple, garbed in black half-masks and white gloves, they do not sing. Dwelvan David plays the preacher who will lead the group through the tragedy to Till’s uncle who is helpless when Till is dragged away in the middle of the night.
The music from gospel church music to traditional musicals is at once familar as it is somber, reflections of vivid emotions refashioned with freshness and vigor.
Till only tells part of the complicated history, but it nevertheless goes to the core. A bit of research revealed a quote by one of Till’s murderers who was indicted but not convicted and decades later sold his confessional story to a magazine for thousands of dollars. After a lifetime of bad luck on his part, and the permanence of Emmett place in history, he said he wished Emmett would “just stay dead.”
That is something that can not be, not as long as there is theater to tell these stories.
At The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre 480 W. 42nd Street (from July 23 to 28, 2019)