Emmett, Down in My Heart | This Ain’t New

Contributed by Marcus Dargan

Down Stage PassIn 2012, the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 sent shockwaves across the nation.  Beyond lines of color, economics, gender, age, and residency, people all across the country identified with Martin.

Protester during a rally in Washington DC. Photo credit | Mladen Antonov | AFP | Getty Images

Protester during a rally in Washington DC. Photo credit | Mladen Antonov | AFP | Getty Images

Average citizens and major celebrities participated in social media campaigns and protest rallies with the mantra “I am Trayvon Martin” and “We Are All Trayvon”, wearing hoodies and carrying bags of Skittles and cans of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail.

There was a general sense of outrage and debate within the public  and media over this case.  Many wondered how such events could play out on our streets and within our legal system.  How, indeed?

“That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.” —Ecclesiastics 1:9 (NKJV)

The murder of Martin and acquittal of Zimmerman didn’t really faze me.  My personal mantra during the events surrounding the Martin case was, “This ain’t new.”

As everyone seemed to build themselves into a frenzy, I remembered Rodney King, Yusef Hawkins, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Bernhard Goetz.

Yusef Hawkins memorial mural.

Yusef Hawkins memorial mural.

I wondered how many unpublicized murders and acquittals have happened before and since.  I wondered why everyone seemed to make a personal connection with Trayvon Martin as opposed to others.  I wondered why everyone seemed so appalled and surprised, yet I seemed indifferent.

I realized that I had built a jaded wall around me; a defense mechanism to avoid getting emotionally connected to every unjustified murder of a black male in America.  Why should I get over excited when it can’t be that good for my health and everyone else seems to be so fickle about the topic anyway?

I told myself, “This ain’t new,” and you know what?  It isn’t.  Trayvon Martin is Emmett Till all over again.  The only major difference I see is that we are now in the 21st Century and that auto-tune hadn’t been invented to make a catchy song around a Mose Wright interview.

Emmett Till's uncle, Mose Wright.

Emmett Till’s uncle, Mose Wright.

My introduction to the way of things happened in grade school.  My class was assigned to watch the PBS series Eyes on the Prize when it first aired in 1987.  The first installment of the series is titled “Awakenings” and explores the events surrounding Emmett Till.  I immediately identified with Till acknowledging that this could have happened to any member of my family and if I was not careful this could still happen to me.

Emmet Till's face during the open casket funeral.

Emmet Till’s face during the open casket funeral.

The images of his mangled face and mutilated body have been burned in my memory.  The photographs of black bodies swinging still haunt me.  Though they were in black and white, they were relevant to me as a child in the 20th Century and still are as an adult today. I have not forgotten.

Last week, after attending Emmett, Down in My Heart I had a chat with my friend, actress Shannon Harris.  I shared my experiences with Till and Martin and disconnect from the latter.  We discussed the Freddie Gray Case and the ongoing protests and civil disorder in Baltimore.

Baltimore Police Department stand guard during a protest.  Photo credit | CNN.com

Baltimore Police Department stand guard during a protest. Photo credit | CNN.com

I asked her questions that I have been asking myself, colleagues, and students, “This murder/acquittal cycle and systematically unjustified police brutality thing has been going on since the birth of this nation.   Why does everyone seem to be up in arms now, when we should have never put them down in the first place?  What is at the root of this resurgence for this generation?  This ain’t new.”

We acknowledged that Trayvon Martin seemed to be the catalyst for consciousness regarding what Harris referred to as the “New Lynching Movement”.  With the increased consumption of social media and access to video surveillance and cameras phones, these types of events seem more immediate.

Still caught on camera phone of Eric Garner's arrest/murder.

Still caught on camera phone of Eric Garner’s arrest/murder.

We are no longer disengaged by simply watching events unfold on television news or in the daily newspaper, but the general public can actively share, comment, and manipulate what is seen and heard instantaneously.  It seems new, because now we don’t have to wait for Rupert Murdoch to tell us what is news.  We can dictate our own headlines within our own terms, on a very personal level.

I also credit the awakening of America’s social conscious to the current discussion on white privilege.  This is a modern campaign where whites are more open to acknowledging that race is an ongoing issue within our society and accepting that they have and are still benefitting from social and institutionalized practices that put them at an advantage over non-white peoples.

I marvel at this seemingly recent discovery, because, of course, “This ain’t new.”

Emmett, Down in My Heart is a retelling of the Emmett Till tragedy through the sympathetic eyes of Roanne Taylor (Zoe Anastassiou) and the equally sympathetic lens of playwright Clare Coss.  


Zoë Anastassiou and Jasmine Saunise in Emmett, Down in My Heart. Photo Credit | Castillo Theatre

Taylor, an optimistic, white , Christian school teacher, in Money, Mississippi, witnesses and imagines the events leading up to and surrounding Emmett Till’s (James Ross) murder, Roy Bryant’s (Josh Beresford) acquittal, and Mamie Till’s (Jasmine Saunise) activism.

Taylor is a constant observer and occasional narrator in a state of limbo as the characters weave in and out of time and space reliving each incident.  She sees injustice, but does not speak up or act out, distraught over her own inaction and the apathy of the white leaders within her community.

She is haunted, not by the ghost of Till, but by a creature of her own conscious: white guilt, which is magnified by her realization that she is indeed white and privileged.  The courage of Mrs. Till, a black and unprivileged woman in the face of great adversity inspires Taylor; however, she is too drenched in regret and self-pity to actively do anything.

Lorenzo Jackson and James Ross in Emmett,. Down in My Heart.  Photo credit | Castillo Theatre

Lorenzo Jackson and James Ross in Emmett,. Down in My Heart. Photo credit | Castillo Theatre

Not satisfied with bearing her burden alone, Taylor shifts her focus to Morris “Cuz” Wright (Lorenzo Jackson), Till’s young cousin who betrayed him out of jealousy.  She inadvertently moved blame from the oppressor to include the oppressed, dragging Cuz down into the abyss of her personal purgatory.

Emmett, Down in My Heart is one of many perspectives on the Emmett Till story that is valid and whose production is timely, strongly reflecting the thoughts and actions of our society as we currently move through the “New Lynching Movement”.

The cast is generally young, providing a valuable experience for youth and young audiences, especially in their teens, to make immediate connections with the work and to be introduced or reintroduced to an important series of events in our nation’s history.

And for those of us who remember, Emmet, Down in My Heart is an opportunity to revisit, reflect, and maybe even remind ourselves that despite all of the Baltimore related hashtags this week, “This ain’t new.”


Castillo Theatre presents Emmett, Down in My Heart
Written by Clare Coss | Directed by Erica Gould

April 17 – May 17, 2015
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2:00 PM *
The Sunday, May 17th performance will be at 5:00 PM

Castillo Theatre
543 W 42nd St | Between 10th and 11th Ave | New York City

Tickets | Castillo.org | 212 941-5800


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