Up from the Mississippi Delta: The Brutal 1955 Murder of Emmett till, Which Helped Spark the Civil Rights Movement, Casts Long, Dark Shadows on Three New Theatre Works
Rux, Hancock Carl, American Theatre
MEMORY and history, like fraternal twins, are the offspring of the same parent--a series of events--and both are subject to change. They may stem from the same place and have many similarities, yet manifest themselves differently; both are informed by environment, culture and the time in which they are formed. During the 2007-08 theatre season, the Mississippi Delta--that alluvial plain (technically it is not a delta) between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers in the northwest section of the state of Mississippi--gave birth to several distinctly different productions that oscillate between memory and history--including one which, at first glance, does not seem to be about the Delta at all.
This past April and May, Chicago's flagship Goodman Theatre produced playwright Ifa Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmett Till, directed by Oz Scott. At BRIC Studio in downtown Brooklyn, 651 Arts presented (as part of its season-long Mississippi Delta Heritage Project) the latest installation of Ping Chong & Co.'s Undesirable Elements/Secret History project, a play called Delta Rising, written and directed by Chong collaborator Talvin Wilks. The third production under consideration here--one that did not explicitly focus on the Delta--is the fourth Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's Pulitzer-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Debbie Allen. Since it was the first Cat to be performed by an all-African-American cast (James Earl Jones, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Terrence Howard were featured), Allen's production was, in effect, about the Delta, and it offers refracted insights into what that storied land has meant to America in the past century and what it might signify to us today. Indeed, what Bayeza's play and the Ping Chong/Talvin Wilks collaboration share with Allen's revival has less to do with the region that parented all three projects than it does with a complex depiction of identity and history, stirring questions about the place the Mississippi Delta still holds in the American psyche.
No American playwright painted images of the Delta as often or as poetically as Williams did. Born in 1911 in Columbus, Miss., and raised in Clarksdale, the writer drew upon the Delta as a primary source of inspiration throughout his career. In his hands, the American South became a dilapidated, idyllic, aristocratic landscape yellowing with antiquity and held together by its mythology. The portrayal of the region that emerges in Williams's texts recalls Don Quixote's remembrance of a more fulfilling time in his past in Camino Real: "that green country he lived in which was the youth of his heart, before such singing words as Truth!" Infused with existential symbolism, Williams's plays were written with religious piety and painted broadly with della Robbia-blue brushstrokes; like the preferred interiors of his character Blanche DuBois, Williams's image of the Delta was cast in a light no brighter than that of a dim candle, the rude remarks and vulgar actions of reality softened by its haze. As his semi-autobiographical protagonist Tom Wingfield makes clear at the top of The Glass Menagerie, Williams is offering not the illusion of truth but rather "truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." One of those illusions was that the Delta had been a realm utterly dominated by white Americans, even as it was silently occupied by people of color.
First staged by Elia Kazan in 1955 and adapted for the screen three years later with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof famously centers around the dysfunctional marriage of a young couple--the alcoholic, brooding Brick and his sexually frustrated, childless wife Maggie--and their interaction with Brick's family as they gather on a Mississippi estate for the birthday celebration of its fatally ill patriarch, Big Daddy. In its most controversial version (and 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 Brick, recently drank himself to death. …