Thursday, November 13, 2008

Up From the Mississippi Delta

by Carl Hancock Rux

The brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which helped spark the Civil Rights Movement, casts long, dark shadows on three new theatre works

“Memory takes a lot of poetic license, It omits some details; others are exaggerated according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” —Tom Wingfield from “Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams

Since the days of Mark Twain and Harriette Beecher Stowe, the American literary imagination has long been captivated by the Mississippi Delta: that alluvial plain (technically not a delta) between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwest section of the state of Mississippi. In the gaze of several contemporary theater artists, the Delta has recently re-emerged as a point of interest. Notably, in the 2007/2008 season, Chicago’s famed Goodman theater produced playwright Ifa Bayeza’s production of The Ballad of Emmett Till, directed by Oz Scott. Developed in The Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Series as well as at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, Ms. Bayeza’s play is based on the infamous murder of a fifteen-year-old African American boy by a gang of white men. The advent of the Till tragedy (and the speedy acquittal of his accused murderers by an all white jury) more than fifty years ago is well known as a turning point in the Civil Rights movement; one that brought attention not only to the Mississippi Delta but to the brutality of race oppression in the Jim Crow south. Based on countless interviews over the past decade with the victim’s family, teachers, classmates and eye-witnesses to the 1955 slaying, Bayeza describes her play as “part history and part mystery”. Though its case has already spawned several documentaries and books over the years, Robert Falls, the Goodman Theater’s Artistic Director, says the subject of Till in Bayeza’s play is one in which “we examine our own lives and actions through the prism of an epoch-defining moment in history.” In May of 2008, the latest installation of Ping Chong & Co.’s Undesirable Elements/Secret History also focused on the Mississippi Delta. Written and directed by Ping Chong collaborator Talvin Wilkes, and presented in Brooklyn at BRIC Studios by 651 Arts as part of their Delta Heritage Project, the performance narrative—Delta Rising— remained true to the theater company’s process of interviewing several participants and creating a script based on those interviews in an extended residency. The final work was performed by the participants themselves, five natives of Mississippi—three black, one Asian, one white, varying in age from 20 to 71. Also last spring, the fourth Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen, was the first to be performed by an all African American cast (featuring Tony award winners James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Nani Rose and academy award nominee, Terence Howard.)
What Ms. Bayeza’s play and the Ping Chong/Talvin Wilkes collaboration shared in common with Ms. Allen’s production has perhaps more to do with a complex depiction of the Delta than just the region itself, giving rise to the inclusivity of its expansive history and stirring questions regarding the place the Mississippi Delta still holds in the American psyche.
Perhaps no one American playwright painted images of the Delta as often or as poetically as Tennessee Williams did. Born in Columbus Mississippi and raised in Clarksdale, the Delta served as a primary source of inspiration for the writer throughout his career. In his hands, the American south became a dilapidated, idyllic aristocratic landscape yellowing with antiquity held together by its mythology. A truthful portrayal of the South was less Mr. Williams’ post-modernist agenda than was a poetic elusive depiction of it. What emerges in Mr. Williams’s texts is like his description of Don Quixote’s Aurora in Camino Real “that green country he lived in which was the youth of his heart, before such singing words as Truth!” Perfecting his dramatic craft within the Southern Gothic tradition, a genre owing its oeuvre to deeply flawed, grotesque characters intuitively drawn against a supernatural narrative—the author’s plays, infused with existential symbolism, were written with religious piety and painted broadly with della Robbia blue brushstrokes. Like the preferred interiors of his character Blanche DuBois’, the Delta was cast in nothing brighter than a dim candle, the rude remarks, and vulgar actions of reality softened by its haze. As his semi-autobiographical protagonist Tom declares at the top of The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams had “tricks up his sleeve”, not the tricks of a magician who offers the illusion of truth but rather, “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” One of those illusions is the Delta as the exclusive setting for white Americans, silently occupied by people of color.
The play, first directed by Elia Kazan in 1955 (and adapted for the screen three years later starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor) famously centered around the dysfunction marriage of a young married couple, the alcoholic, brooding Brick and his sexually frustrated, childless wife Maggie—and their interaction with the Brick’s family, gathered on a Mississippi estate for the birthday celebration of its fatally ill patriarch, Big Daddy. In its most controversial version (there were several) Brick alludes to the source of his depression; the homosexual nature of his friendship with a football buddy who, once rejected by him, recently drank himself to death. The theme of the play, as stated by the its troubled protagonist, is mendacity—his disgust with the world and its lies, especially as it relates to the genteel South in which the family lies to Big Daddy about his health, and a scheming brother and his wife are all too eager to inherit his dying father’s estate. The African American characters, Sookey and Lacey, two servants, functioned merely to support the business of the main stage. In both the original stage and film versions, these characters whisked quietly on and off the set, in and out of the frame, like ghosts without dimension or even the minstrelsy or comic relief afforded actors like Hattie McDaniel decades earlier. The original Broadway production also featured two unnamed Blues musicians portrayed by singer guitarist Browns McGhee and blind harmonica player Sonny Terry.
For the most part, in Tennessee Williams plays, African Americans were depicted as the curiously silent other lurking in the sidelines of servitude. With the exception of a few later (and lesser known) works, Mr. Williams characters of color were void of conflict or epiphany; either referenced with derogatory playfulness (as Amanda Wingfield does in Glass Menagerie when, intercepting her daughter’s offer to serve dessert, insists “You be the lady this time and I’ll be the darkey!”) or absent altogether. His half drawn representations of African Americans were perhaps a testament to the time and place in which they were first written. Boasting that he was descended from “famous Indian fighters when the South was being settled,” Tennessee Williams was born in the Delta in 1911. Jim Crow laws were in full effect and Mississippi lead the nation in African American lynching well into the 1930s. When Mr. Williams first cultivated his dramatic voice (with Glass Menagerie) before the close of WWII, America’s reception to his illustration of the South as the wounded sister of an old familial battle (the Civil War) desperately clinging to romantic notions of jonquils in a bygone era, might well be credited not only to his evident talent as a writer but to the nation’s need to reconcile with its past and emerge as a unified front. As far as human drama was concerned, non-whites were not considered human, nor did they share equal status with American humanity. As depicted in Mr. Williams plays, it was largely believed that black Mississippians were voiceless, apolitical, marginalized oppressed people who knew their place and kept their mouths shut—barely existing. Subtracting race as the obvious difference between the silent servants in the background and the troubled, loquacious white family in the foreground creates a recognizable humanity most likely previously unavailable to many audiences. Considering the original text of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was unedited in its most recent production, the premise of the Pollitts as a wealthy black family was surprisingly believable. In the hands of the indomitable James Earl Jones, Big Daddy as a bodacious, misogynistic wealthy plantation owner who is black is not inconsistent with Delta history,
Writer director Talvin Wilkes, having seen Ms. Allen’s production of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, reflected back on it after conducting interviews with native Mississippians for his Delta Rising project. “The script did work with Big Daddy as an African American overachiever addressing issues of self hatred and assimilation”, Mr. Wilkes observes, “It was not a made up notion of a family and the concept (of a wealthy black family in the Delta) is broader than a Hollywood gimmick. There were and are wealthy blacks in the Delta who owned plantations.”
Shermel Carthan, a participant in Delta Rising project, and an acting student at the California Institute of the Arts, is the descendant of James Carthan, an African American plowshare, and prohibition era moonshine manufacturer who purchased 60 acres of land once belonging to a Choctaw reservation in 1939. According to Shermel Carthan, his grandfather was the only African American to own land in Tchula Mississippi at the time. Though the area was known for its overwhelming poverty, his grandfather’s initial investment grew tenfold and his father, Eddie Carthan, would grow up working his way through law school farming his family’s 600 acres raising cotton, soybeans, and wheat, become an educator at Saints College in Lexington, Mississippi; own and operate a restaurant and hardware businesses, become a business developer for the US Department of Commerce in the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, president of the Mississippi Family Farmers Association and by 1977, mayor of Tchula, Mississippi, serving two terms. Like Brick, Shermel Carthan grew up in a mansion on an old slave plantation (complete with slave quarters) and before entering college, attended private boarding schools in Mississippi: Interlochen Arts Academy and Piney Woods, the latter founded in 1909 by an African American in 1909.
“Laurence Clifton Jones,” Mr. Carthan states proudly with an articulate southern twang, “was an African American with $3.17, a bible and a dream to educate black people.” The school began in the desperately poor section of rural Rankin County, under the shade of a cedar tree, with the students using a fallen log as a desk, despite the murderous threats of Klansmen. The story goes, as told by Mr. Carthan, that the Minister Jones delivered a sermon so powerful, members of the Klan actually “took up a collection” to help establish the school, and by the end of its fifth year, the school received a charter from the governor of Mississippi. Many teachers, black and white, joined the staff and worked for little or no salary as the school endeavored to train teachers for the State Department of Education. In the 1920s, Piney Woods began a separate division for blind students. Following the example of other Black institutions of higher learning such as Fisk, Hampton, and Tuskegee, the school is also where the group, The Blind Boys of Mississippi, would first form in 1931 and begin their professional careers as gospel singers.
Mr. Wilkes, who is working with Ping Chong & Company to produce a tour of Delta Rising in Mississippi, was profoundly impacted by what he learned from its eclectic cast. “You walk away with what you think you know of the Delta”, he reflects, “from the freedom fighter to the revolution of the 60s, and the problems that still remain, like drugs and unemployment.” Though the state is the birthplace of many successful African Americans, including Oprah Winfrey and Academy award winning actor Morgan Freeman, not until the turbulent 1960s would the state see the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi (the result of which also cost two people their lives); its public schools desegregate by order of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Charles Evers brother of assassinated politician Medgar Evers, elected the first black mayor in Mississippi since Reconstruction. Still, Mr. Wilkes affirms, “the real history of the Delta seems to have been forgotten and is compounded by our lack of education.”
As the Undesirable Elements project attests, the secret history of the Mississippi Delta is it’s real history—one often overshadowed by images of African American slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and a black white racial divide. The truth is the Mississippi Delta’s has always been much more complicated than anything these stereotypes might suggest. Included in Delta Rising are the inter-related stories of Toni Seawright, the first African American to represent Miss Mississippi in the Miss America beauty pageant, E’dena Le’dair Hines, granddaughter of Academy Award winning actor Morgan Freeman, and Virginia Wing, a Chinese American actress born in Marks Mississippi whose great uncle first came to the Delta at the beginning of the 20th century and became a successful businessman despite the efforts of white Mississippi planters to replace post Civil war Black Labor with “cheap Chinese Labor” and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1869, the first immigrant law to exclude on the basis of race. Gene Dattel, whose grandfather fled Latvia to avoid Eastern European pogroms and being drafted into the Russian Army, was born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1944. After arriving in the United States via Ellis Island, his family became part of a burgeoning culture of Jewish immigrants. Mr. Dattel tells the story of the first Jewish synagogue built in Clarksdale in 1912. “The building of the first synagogue became a town affair. The lumber company donates lumber. The sheriff’s office donates free prison labor. Citizens who plan to run for office made cash donations. The Torah arrived on the 3:00pm train at the railroad depot and was passed from hand to hand by anyone willing to pay $100 for the honor. The local colored band lead the parade.”
Mr. Wilkes insists, “These forgotten histories are a paradigm for larger issues, and it takes projects (like Delta Rising) to bring attention to them once again. “ of Mr. Wilkes suggests he would have liked the all black production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof to have been “less of a devise or a Hollywood gimmick” and “a way to understand a history.”
Even though Mississippi has a large African American community and the lowest per capita income in the nation, the idea of its poor blacks as a silent minority, even in Mr. Williams’ time, is ironic. As early as 1870, Hiram Revels was the first black politician to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Congress, and five years later, Blanche K. Bruce represented Mississippi as the first black U.S. Senator, which makes Ms. Allen’s all African American production of a Tennessee Williams play all the more ironic.
Less than five months after Cat On A Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway in March of 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen year old African American from Chicago, while vacationing in Money Mississippi, stops at Bryant's Grocery store, owned by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, to buy some candy. Till (cousin of Shermel Carthan’s mother) is accused of “whistling” at twenty year old Carolyn Bryant. Several days later, Roy Bryant, Carolyn's husband, and his half brother J.W. Milam, along with Carolyn Bryant, Roy's half-brother, abduct Emmett Till from his great uncle’s home, beat him, undressed him, shot him and tied a gin fan around his neck with wire, throwing his body into Tallahatchie River near Glendora, Mississippi. When the missing boy’s disappearance was investigated, Bryant and Milam admitted they had taken the boy from his great-uncle's yard but claimed they had let him go. Shortly thereafter, Till’s body was discovered, his features too distorted to positively identify except for a ring on his hand that had belonged to his father. In an open casket funeral, the corpse was photographed by the press; the boy’s right eye missing, a broken nose and a bullet wound to the head. Fifty thousand people attend the funeral in Illinois, and though Bryant and Milam were indicted for the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till, an all white jury deliberated for little more than an hour and found the men not guilty. After photos of the mutilated corpse were published in Jet Magazine, Milan and Bryant confessed to killing Till in a story in Look Magazine (Jan. 1956) for which they were paid $4,000.00. That same month, another Tennessee Williams authored project set in the Mississippi Delta, Baby Doll, opened in movie houses across the country. Also directed by Elia Kazan, the film’s trailer announced it was filmed on location in the Benoit Mississippi, with “real live Mississippi extras.” The residents (with spoken lines) of Benoit, Miss. who appeared in the Carol Baker, Karl Malden, Eli Wallach film, were white. The African American residents were extras and remained silent, sitting beneath a tree, grinning, except to break out in song.
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof closed on Broadway Nov. 17th of 1956, one year and two months after the Till trial. One reporter asked after the acquittal of the accused killers, “Did Emmett Till ever really exist? Or is this little Negro boy only a figment of the imagination? What the State of Mississippi has done, in substance, is twice to deny the existence of Emmett Till (and) until the streets of its cities and the cabins of its sharecroppers are safe for all its children, a large segment of the nation must echo the cry—What kind of a land do we live in?” (Inez Robb, Associated Press, Nov. 16th, 1955).
Though the Till incident occurred in the Mississippi Delta, playwright Ifa Bayeza admits, “I really wasn't drawn to the Delta” for inspiration. Looking at the larger picture, she continues, “ I was drawn to Emmett and he to me. He walked right into a play I was doing on something else, actually the second episode of Homer G.” The first installment of Miss Bayeza’s Homer G. & The Rhapsodies in the Fall of Detroit, titled The Judgment of Paris, was an experimental serial theater work imagining the hip-hop transformation of the fall of Troy to modern-day Detroit, exploring parallels between the fall of the ancient Greek city and the demise of Detroit’s motor car industry. “He (Emmett Till) walked in, planted his feet, took over the lead and took me on a journey.” the playwright explained from Chicago where her play based on Emmett Till premiered in the spring of 2008. Over ten years in the making, The Ballad of Emmett Till began as a one-act and expanded into a full-length play in four movements. Bayeza first presented excerpts of Till at the Arna Bontemps African American Museum in Alexandria, Louisiana, where she was named the 2003 Arna Bontemps Centennial Scholar. In June 2005, Movement One of Till received its first public staged reading at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Directed by Sue Lawless, the play was then presented as part of the Juneteenth Legacy New Plays Festival. In September 2005, Bayeza read Movement One in a solo presentation at the Stillman College conference “The Murder of Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Struggle” in Tuskaloosa, Alabama. In addition, in September, the Fountain Theatre of Los Angeles hosted a staged reading of Movement One directed by John Wesley—who appears as Moses in the Goodman’s production.

Till was then selected by Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre and Providence Black Repertory Company as the inaugural project for RPM Mainstage—a new play development partnership established through Brown’s Office of the President. Bayeza began a six-month residency to develop the full-length Till, culminating in the first staged reading of all four movements at Providence Black Repertory Theatre in March 2006, directed by the late Marsha Z. West.
Further explaining where region may fit into her thesis for revisiting the Till tragedy, Ms. Bayeza stated, “I think I was looking at the cross currents of North and South, of that trade-escape-battle route, the geographic umbilical and caesarian of the City of New Orleans Express, Illinois-Mississippi- Mississippi-Illinois. The jolt that started to move the nation came not from Mississippi, but from that critical intersection - two volatile cultures brought together by a catalytic agent in the form of a fourteen year old.”
In his introduction to The Glass Menagerie, Williams wrote “Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.” The author’s statement is best translated as a post-modernist approach to representing life through a subjective, idealized romantic lens. To put it much more succinctly, what Williams championed was not literal interpretation but something closer to what Miss Bayeza’s imagination allows, a re-photographing of time and place that, once removed from the immediacy of history, allows a deeper and more in depth analysis. If the Delta of Mr. Williams literary recollections was like that of Amanda Warfield’s in the Glass Menagerie, one of cotillions where fading debutantes entertained a multitude of Sunday afternoon gentlemen callers in frocks of voile and silk—so many in fact, she had to “send the nigger over to bring in folding chairs from the parish house”, it remains a memory true to a subjective eye. In deference to Tennessee Williams, who left behind the Mississippi Delta for New Orleans and continued to render the Delta without democratic race representation, his own insight remained true to an era of social blindness, with a poet’s prophetic ear. One might imagine that Maggie, when speaking to her husband Brick in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, is speaking to her author as well as to her speechless African American characters when she warns “When something is festering in your memory or your imagination, laws of silence don’t work, it’s just like shutting a door and locking it on a house on fire in hope of forgetting that the house is burning. But not facing a fire doesn’t put it out. Silence about a thing just magnifies it. It grows and festers in silence, becomes malignant.”

Originally published in American Theater Magazine Sept. 2008
©Carl Hancock Rux, all rights reserved

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