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About a Boy 

In Karamu's latest production, a tragic death brings history to life.

One of the civil-rights movement's key tales is told in - The Emmett Till Story.
  • One of the civil-rights movement's key tales is told in The Emmett Till Story.
Once you've seen the picture of Emmett Till's battered, bloated face, it's hard to forget it. Lying there in his coffin, he looks about his age -- 14 -- but his childlike features have been transformed into a mass of disfiguring bruises and shattered bone. Till was a black kid from Chicago, visiting relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. Allegedly, he whistled at a white woman -- something black boys weren't supposed to do in 1955 Mississippi. A few days later, the woman's husband and brother-in-law drove to the home where Till was staying, forced him out of bed, and took him to a secluded area of town, where they beat, tortured, and killed him.

"It's heavy material, that goes without saying," says Kimberly Brown, who's directing The Little Boy Who Shook Up the World: The Emmett Till Story, which premieres at Karamu on Saturday. "But our history shouldn't be lost to future generations."

The one-act play, written by Nicole C. Kearney Cooper, is taken entirely from the court transcripts from the murder trial of the two men, who were acquitted of the crime in less than an hour by an all-white jury. (Last spring, a new investigation was opened. It now appears that more than a dozen people -- half of whom are still alive -- may have been involved in Till's killing.) "There are still things like this happening," says Brown. "It is important to draw on the energy to see justice done. Hate crimes, no matter who they are against, shouldn't be looked at in a vacuum."

The Little Boy Who Shook Up the World is the first of 10 works that the Indiana-based playwright is developing to document the civil-rights campaign in the United States. Till's story is an appropriate launching point, says Brown, because the severity of the crime (the fateful night culminated in a gunshot to the back of Till's head) affected previously complacent people. "Fifty years ago, things like this were happening all the time, and no one was talking about it," she says. "Not until Emmett Till.

"But there isn't resolution written into the play. The happy ending is the happy ending that we know, in that [Emmett's mother] dedicated her life to seeing that justice was done, not only in her son's case, but in all other cases that involve racial inequality."

But it's not an angry play, cautions Brown; in fact, it could even be perceived as hopeful. "A conversation about Emmett Till's murder will spark an angry response in some people," she says. "The play is a statement of facts. Both sides of the story are told, to the extent that they can be. We don't know Emmett's side of the story. He was never given an opportunity to talk.

"It's a story that needs to be told. There are generations that have forgotten or are unaware of the story and the impact that it had on the civil-rights movement."

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