A scene from the “Ballad of Emmett Till” at Ion Theatre in Hillcrest.

By Pat Launer

He was only 14 years old. He never had a chance. A big-city boy from Chicago visiting rural Mississippi relatives in the Jim Crow South of 1955. He was destined for disaster. He didn’t know the rules.

Emmett Till considered himself a “seeker.” He was hungry for knowledge and experience. His brief life turned out to be a catalyst for the hastening of the civil rights movement, igniting protests around the world.

It was only three days after he had arrived. He wasn’t familiar with the strict racial codes of conduct in the South. When he entered a small grocery store to buy bubble gum, the story goes that he whistled at the young white woman behind the counter.

Four days later, her husband and his half-brother came after Emmett, abducting him from his great-uncle’s house and beating him mercilessly, then shooting him in the head, afterward tying him to a cotton-fan with barbed wire and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River. The two men were acquitted by an all-white jury. They later admitted committing the crime, but exhibited no remorse. Just this past January, the woman behind the counter, who’d been 21 at the time and is now 82, confessed that her claims of Emmett’s physical and verbal assault were fabricated. She recanted her original story.

One of the most powerful images of the horrific incident was the photo of Emmett in his coffin. At his funeral, which was attended by tens of thousands, Emmett’s mother insisted that the casket remain open, so the world could see what had been done to her boy.

In her 2008 play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” Ifa Bayeza presents some of these events, but in imaginative, non-linear fashion. Her initial version was a 3 hour/13 actor epic, but the New York-based Bayeza, who was in San Diego for the local premiere of her play at Ion Theatre, has pared it down over time, and she tweaked it again for this production, which clocks in at a fleet 90 minutes.

Co-directors Yolanda Marie Franklin and Claudio Raygoza have cast an outstanding ensemble, all playing multiple characters, male and female, black and white. Except for Cortez L. Johnson who, in a marvelous, tour de force performance, plays only Emmett, as a kind of cocky, fun-loving, iconoclastic, hyperverbal, self-assured, spoiled and naive kid who had suffered polio as a child and moderate-to-severe stuttering throughout his short life (it didn’t keep him from talking non-stop, forever asking questions and, at least in the play, describing, often poetically, what he saw around him).

The drama is called a “Ballad,” and it is highly rhythmic and musical, with lines or comments intoned, or murmured like an incantation. Actual hymns punctuate the action, underscoring the close-knit, God-fearing family surrounding Emmett.

The cast creates all the sound effects, from cars and trains to chickens and the tick-tock of passing time (the least effective, most cliche sound, among the evocative whoosh, hum and sigh of the rest of the excellent vocal soundscape).

Sometimes, the cast circles around the small Ion stage. Sometimes they freeze mid-action, particularly during the horrendous abuse and beating — with a terrifying Rhys Green doing perhaps his best work ever in this play, as the monstrous, hate-filled white man who murdered Emmett Till (a man who had a number of subsequent run-ins with the law).

Grandison Phelps III is solid and grounded in several roles, most potently as Emmett’s great-uncle Mose, the land-owning preacher, reluctant to leave his piece of property to move North, and helpless in the face of the beastly brutes who invade his house. Tamara McMillian is wonderful as Emmett’s indulgent but stalwart mother, and Portia Gregory shines as his equable grandmother. Dwaine Collier, still a student at Cal State San Marcos (this is his first professional production) acquits himself quite well as Emmett’s cousin, and others.

The sheer theatricality of the piece, and the colorful character Emmett apparently was, keep the production from becoming maudlin or depressing. It’s quite lively and often humorous — until the racist horrors begin and the inevitable ending comes. But Emmett’s life remains a beacon in the darkness.

The dignity of his family, in contrast to the barbarity of those who destroyed Emmett, is movingly conveyed.

This young man did not die in vain. He has become an icon of the civil rights movement. And in a subtle nod to our current bone-chilling wave of unpunished crimes and brutality against young black men — in both North and South — the skillful directors have Emmett don a hoodie toward the end; his mother gently pulls the hood down and away from his face, in a symbolic effort to protect her son and others like him.

Six decades later, this story still resonates sharply. And this muscular retelling serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

  • The Ballad of Emmett Till” has been extended through July 29 at Ion Theatre, 3704 6th Avenue in Hillcrest
  • Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with a matinee at 4 p.m. on Saturday
  • Tickets ($12-$35, with discounts available) are available at 619-600-5020 or online at iontheatre.com
  • Running time: 90 min.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.