This review shall consider Gloria J Browne-Marshall’s Dreams of Emmett Till, directed by Bobby Field. It is a play with very honourable, palpable and important objectives, but its execution means that it simply falls short of its aims.
At the very beginning of this performance, we are given an introduction to the play by Browne-Marshall. She terms her form of writing ‘spiritual realism’, claiming that the dramatic text aims to imagine a surreal world where perpetrators get their just desserts and the victim(s) and their relatives get justice. Objectively, noting only these claims, I completely understand the link between the philosophy of spiritual realism and its literature and Browne-Marshall’s ideas behind this play. A surreal world of growth and omniscience where lost or suffering souls should meet with peace, rectify the wrongs done unto them in the living life, and reach some sort of enlightenment in the guilty recognition of perpetrators — this is a wonderful premise for this text…but the writing simply does not match up.
One would expect in this ‘surreal’ world a sense of…surreality. Instead, the only thing surreal about this play is the presence of Emmett Till (Jaiden Kwiseka) himself at the kitchen table. Neither are we in a different [or spiritual] realm nor in a [re-]imagined context; in fact, for the most part, the action is purely factual. Really, this is a history play, with its action imagining [note: not re-imagining] Carolyn Bryant’s (Jayne Taini) mindset, experience and thought processes after telling reporters that she recants her description of events. What develops from this is an imagining [note again: not re-imagining] of Till and Bryant’s exchange at her store as well as his murder. We are not presented with the so-called spiritual realism we are prepared for. This is both disappointing and ineffective.
Browne-Marshall’s introduction makes use of a very clever, one could say Epic, technique. In this introduction, the events of the play to come are contextualised, historicised and politicised. We are asked from the very start to consider whilst watching the play both the current and historical contexts of the forms of racial discrimination against black people, and this is a fantastic way to force the audience to consider the action from a critical distance from the start, to learn from it, and, ultimately, to imagine and actuate radical social change inspired by it. This is a powerful and educated decision. However, given that we are prepared for a spiritual realist play, not one that simply regurgitates and re-enacts real historical events of the past, it becomes difficult to find the right critical lens through which to regard the material of the play, the right angle from which to approach its contents in conflict with the particularised critical thinking we have prepared ourselves to do.
From the very beginning, the play remains heavily fictionalised and over-relies upon [generic] realism, providing additional and unnecessary information, such as the inclusion and descriptions of the character Meline, Bryant’s son’s (Peter Breitmayer) wife, and her actions. In choosing to use Bryant and her son to open the play’s dialogue to Till’s murder, our focus is automatically placed on their relationship and the troubles they face together after each having been involved, to some extent, in Till’s murder, as opposed to Bryant and Till’s relationship and the significance of this.
The inclusion of Bryant’s son’s character has a more devastating impact on the play, however. For instance, in the climax at the end, Till relives his brutal murder — a wonderful and what could be called blood-curdling performance from Kwiseka — and, in the background, we have Bryant’s son shouting, “Go upstairs!” and “Mother, go!” Our focus here should be solely on the horror of Till’s lynching, and Bryant’s speech intensifies this with her lack of compassion, her continuous lies, and her general manner that Till ‘deserved’ what happened to him. Bryant’s son, however, forces us to disengage with the historical context and concentrate on the effects that Till’s murder is having on the plot of the play in itself and, particularly, on Bryant’s son. Whilst I can understand the inclination to present the white-supremacist, egocentric, self-compassionate position that Bryant’s son harbours in lieu of respect, guilt and compassion, this can be manifested through Bryant’s character alone.
Ultimately, I believe it would have been better to remove the character of Bryant’s son, altogether. He is simply subtractive from the messages of the play and our reading of them. Any attempt to politicise the material, to make it feel authentic and important, or to engage us critically, is squandered by his constant fictionalisations — e.g. the telephone call he receives from his wife, his standing at the door in fear of the reporters’ arrival, his descriptions of how the ‘incident’ has affected his life. This is needless information that, ultimately, attempts to make content resemble better a traditional play, especially with the climactic anticipation of the approaching reporters. I would urge Browne-Marshall to be more daring with her approach, to understand that sticking to traditional storytelling techniques is not what is important here; the specific sociocultural and political messages of this dramatic text should remain a priority and should be able to act freely upon audience members, unhindered by a demand for psychological realism.
Bryant’s son remains throughout a driver of the fictional — or, rather, the plot- and narrative-based — elements of the play, whilst Bryant herself remains the driver of the underlying political messages. They seem to be in direct conflict with one another throughout the play because of this. It is for this reason that I write that the character of Bryant’s son should be deleted from this text. We do not care about his worries or about how this all is affecting him; we care about Bryant and Till’s perspectives and relationship and the truths we can extract from them. However, I believe that Browne-Marshall knew, at least subconsciously, that these two driving forces were in conflict with one another, as Bryant soon shuts off from her son completely, ignoring his demands and continuing her speech, especially towards the end. But this just means that the unheard utterances her son makes become an aggravating and subtractive, and hence deletable, background noise.
Even in the fact that Till’s ghostly presence is only known to Bryant and not her son, it is clear that Till’s character and presence have nothing to do with him. In fact, this latter becomes rather jarring when, suddenly, Bryant’s son and Till are sharing the same screen; the two should be distinctly separate, and Bryant’s son’s corporeality should be distinguished in this way from Till’s immateriality. If anyone should share the screen with Till, it should be Bryant herself. Furthermore, I should note here that any white privilege holding high white dignity, etiquette and fragility could come, again, come through Bryant’s character alone, and so nothing would be lost in this respect if Bryant’s son’s character was removed.
After removing Bryant’s son, I would consider a dialogue solely between Bryant and Till, which would have two main effects: firstly, it would focus the text a lot more on what is the heart of this story, the relationship between Bryant and Till and the ‘truth’ behind their interaction; and secondly, it would place the two characters into the exact same context of their historical counterparts, which could also benefit Browne-Marshall’s notion of spiritual realism, as the characters could relive and undo the harm that was done, within this symbolic one-on-one context.
Personally, however, I would also completely scrap the unnecessary concept/explanation of spiritual realism; this is a mere attempt at genrefication, and there are no elements in this text — beyond, again, the presence of Emmett Till’s ‘ghost’ or ‘soul’ — to evidence Browne-Marshall’s claims that this is, in fact, a piece of spiritual realist literature. An audience does not need to be told, nay reminded, that the material is imagined, unless there is a strong and specific reason to do so; this is a play, after all.
Evidently, the dramatic text could benefit from a few edits, and I shall now address some more areas that need to be reconsidered. There are a few notable misinformations in this text, such as how it is explained that Till’s mother was the one that dragged him out of the river, which are important to correct, though these do not impact the readability of the overall performance. However, more significantly, it is in places confusing as to what Bryant’s motivations and objectives are. The premise is that she no longer wants to lie, that she wants the truth out about ‘the incident’, and yet Till has to correct her many times, specifically telling her, “That’s a lie.” She states in the end that she’s “truly sorry,” after saying that Till deserved “some” of what happened to him. Does she feel guilty? Or does she think his murder was her justice? It is not clear, either, what exactly her reaction was to Till’s supposed flirtation. She states that she was the most beautiful woman in the city and that he looked at her as though she were nothing. Perhaps this was her way of saying that she felt dirtied or depreciated, which would make more sense, and so maybe a rewording of the text is better here to elucidate this reaction; as it stands, however, it is not very clear and simply seems as though a contradiction — the difference between the two narratives: “I’m a beautiful white woman, and this black boy has cheapened me” vs “I’m a beautiful white woman, and this black boy should recognise that and treat me accordingly.” I should note here that Bryant’s remark, “He was a handsome boy,” is one that makes this all the more confusing.
These inconsistencies aside, there are quite a few areas wherein this performance is very successful. After noting the fruitful introduction from Browne-Marshall, we are presented throughout the performance with real pictures of the era and of Till and his family. This is very effective in contextualising the events of the play and in hitting “close to home”, so to speak. It becomes easier to identify and relate intimately with Till and his relatives in this way. Some images could be a tad more congruous, though, and the image of Till’s corpse, in particular, should be introduced with more care to timing, but, overall, images are very powerful.
Also notable is the manner in which Till is represented in the dramatic text and portrayed by Kwiseka. In this play, Till is not represented in a sensationalist manner as children are in general — particularly children victimised by abuse, murder, etc. Instead, he is presented naturally. He has sarcasm, jokiness, anger, and so on. He is humanised, and this is a very good decision, allowing for a relatable humanity in his character. His remarks are clever and carry a good amount of subtext, such as in the line, ‘Poor whites, couldn’t afford liquorice’, alluding to an all-compromising white pride over civility and care. His character has clearly been well though-out. I would just edit his representation in the final scene wherein he demands Bryant get him a lemonade, as this compromises our notion that it would have been against Till’s nature to demand her goods at the store, initiating her racist response and leading to his murder, and also emulates the same dictation and lack of civility that was shown to him, that to which he should be sensitised and opposed. Lastly, I would also note that his introduction is simply nonexistent; his appearance should be a lot more marked — this play is about him, after all.
Though the beginning is rather weak and repetitive — and particularly esoteric, with Bryant’s son’s constant repetition of “You recanted!” — the play reveals itself to be quite thought-provoking. Unfortunately, though, whilst there are certainly successful elements to this performance, I must mark it down simply because of this very compromising over-fictionalisation and the fact that the performance falls far from its aims and leaves its audience with mixed and incomplete messages. I am afraid this performance fails to reflect the justice we are promised in Browne-Marshall’s introduction — a simple apology is not enough, and Bryant’s growth both seems to come out of nowhere and simply is not enough to excuse her of her doing and to give Till and his family ‘justice’; he is not even treated to the lemonade.