Last Chance to See ‘Till’ and ‘Requiem’
By November 14, 2022 0 713•
Two powerfully moving productions by risk-taking companies based in Washington, D.C. — Mosaic Theater Company and In Series — are due to close this Sunday, Nov. 20. Mosaic’s “The Till Trilogy,” three plays exploring the life, murder and legacy of Emmett Till, is being presented repertory-style at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. In Series’ “Requiem” is a unique staging of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem, interspersed with works by Canadian composer Claude Vivier and concluding with a piece by French composer Lili Boulanger.
“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the initial play in Ifa Bayeza’s trilogy, is performed by six actors; “Requiem” by seven singers (plus a five-person chorus). Beautifully balanced ensemble shows with spare, symbolic sets and minimal props, they also share an atmosphere of tragedy, spirituality and catharsis. More about each follows, but here’s the overall message: Catch them if you can.
‘The Till Trilogy’
As of this writing, I have only seen “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” the trilogy’s shortest play at 90 minutes without intermission. The other two are “Benevolence,” which follows a Black couple and a white couple dealing with the aftermath of Till’s murder, and “That Summer in Sumter,” which focuses on the trial. Directed by Talvin Wilks, each is said to stand on its own, meaning they may be watched individually or in any combination.
The trilogy has a total cast of 10, six of whom appear in “The Ballad of Emmett Till”: Antonio Michael Woodard as 14-year-old Emmett Till; Billie Krishawn as his mother, Mamie Till-Bradley; Rolonda Watts as his grandmother, Mamoo; Jaysen Wright as his cousin, Wheeler Parker; Jason Bowen as his great uncle, Mose; and Vaughn Ryan Midder as one of Uncle Mose’s sons.
Apart from Woodard, each actor appears in other roles. Krishawn, for example, also plays another of Uncle Mose’s sons and the white woman that Emmett was said to whistle at or touch, the pretext for his abduction and murder. Midder’s other roles are a sexy young Black woman and one of the white murderers.
The transitions from scene to scene and from character to character are seamless, adding to the show’s remarkably poetic feel. In addition, there is music: Bayeza wrote songs that the ensemble performs, singing a cappella and dancing in several styles, at one point to Pat Boone’s “Ain’t That a Shame.”
As Emmett, a charismatic Chicago boy barely slowed down by polio and a stutter — the reason for his infamous whistling — Woodard is unforgettable. “A Leo cannot live without pride,” says one of the characters about Emmett, born July 25, 1941, nicknamed Bobo, and we sense the trouble to come. On the City of New Orleans train ride from Chicago to Mississippi, a trip to the Jim Crow South his mother was right to fear, a man declares: “Emmett Till, why can’t you be still?”
The train ride, a Ferris wheel ride (making use of colored fluorescent lights), a game of checkers, killing and plucking a chicken, fishing with Uncle Mose — these are all pantomimed. So is Emmett’s abduction and torture, which, though abstract, is no less wrenching to watch.
Ringing true for both Chicago (the Tills lived in the nearby village of Argo, as in the corn starch, now part of Summit, Illinois) and small-town Mississippi in the 1950s, the dialogue manages to bridge realism and ritualism, segueing to call-and-response, Greek chorus-style chant and, in a passage hard to listen to, Emmett’s mother and grandmother describing his disfigurement, simultaneously but not in sync.
His body is carried off to loud, low synthesizer chords. We remember the opening song, sung in a circle by the ensemble, stomping, about how his soul could not be broken and is rising still.
Remaining performances at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE:
“The Ballad of Emmett Till,” Nov. 16 at 11 a.m. and Nov. 17 and 19 at 8 p.m.
“That Summer in Sumter,” Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 3 p.m.
“Benevolence,” Nov. 16 at 8 p.m., Nov. 17 at 11 a.m. and Nov. 19 at 3 p.m.
Always hard to pin down, In Series under the artistic direction of Timothy Nelson — inspired by avant-garde directors Peter Brook and Peter Sellars — is regularly taking singers and audiences completely off the map, “pioneering into new artistic frontiers,” in Nelson’s words.
Physically speaking, the current production of “Requiem” has been performed in three sacred spaces, Hand Chapel in Foxhall, First Congregational United Church of Christ on G Street NW (where I saw it) and St. Mark’s Capitol Hill, and one secular, Dupont Underground. This weekend, the show will be performed in Baltimore at 2640 Space, in St. John’s United Methodist Church.
“Imagined and directed” by Nelson, with music direction by In Series Head of Music Emily Baltzer and arrangements by David E. Chavez, “Requiem” is first and foremost an evening of musical excellence. The ensemble of sopranos Teresa Ferarra and Noelle McMurty, mezzos Aryssa Leigh Burns and Gayssie Lugo, tenor Oliver Mercer, baritone Daniel J. Smith and bass-baritone Jarrod Lee is an outstanding vocal lineup, backed by (unseen at First Congregational) soprano Emily Weaver, alto Janna Critz, tenors Brynn Farlow and Joseph Kaz and baritone Zachary Franklin Bryant. Having trained at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and worked with many of Europe’s rising opera singers, Nelson knows talent when he hears it.
But these singers are not only talented but fearless. Alternating with movements from Mozart’s Requiem (Rex Tremendae, Lacrymosa, etc.) are sections of “Love Songs,” an experimental 1977 work written for a Montreal dance company by composer Claude Vivier. The production concludes with Vivier’s unfinished final work (he was murdered in Paris in 1983 by a man he picked up), “Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the immortality of the soul),” and a movement from an unfinished Requiem Mass by Lili Boulanger, who died of tuberculosis in 1918.
Along with Latin from the Requiem Mass, Vivier’s “Love Songs” are set to texts from, among others, Wagner, Shakespeare and Hesse; nursery rhymes; and Vivier’s own writing in a made-up language. The singers are called upon to improvise and interact to accompaniment on synthesizers by Baltzer, Chavez and Nelson and percussion by Michael Barranco.
Then there’s the set: a faux Washington Metro car (the familiar beige, orange and red seats) within a scaffolding-like framework, resting on an irregular circle of silvery fabric. Wearing typical Metro-rider clothing, the singers move in and out of the car, singing, chanting and speaking in several languages, shouting, laughing (one woman says: “Why do you laugh? This is a sad story”), whistling, buzzing their lips, dancing, playing pattycake and rock-paper-scissors and, especially, taking off and putting back on their outer garments. Mozart’s Confutatis, familiar from a famous scene in “Amadeus,” is beautifully sung with the singers on their knees.
I leave it to you to interpret this production. (Early on, the “train” stops suddenly and the passengers fall. Have they died?) In any case, you are unlikely to see anything like it anywhere, apart from current and future In Series seasons.
Remaining performances of “Requiem” at 2640 Space, 2640 St. Paul St., Baltimore:
Nov. 18 and 19 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 20 at 4:30 p.m.