In the beginning –
In 1955 14-year old Emmett Till was murdered not far upriver from where I was a junior at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. No one would talk about what happened, a child brutally tortured and lynched and the failure of justice. “You’re a yankee – you just don’t understand how it is down here.” My activism ignited. I decided to leave my uncaring and dismissive sisters and was granted permission to live in International House, a beautiful on campus French style mansion that housed the graduate global women students. My new roommate, Cira Myron was from Guatemala, one of many new friends from around the world.
The pain suffered by Emmett Till haunted my soul. In the early 1990s I awoke at dawn pervaded by a spiritual mandate to write a play about Emmett Till. As a white woman, the white teacher character, Roanne Taylor, appeared in my imagination – my entry in to the story. She cared, but was silent. What good is having your heart in the right place, if you don’t speak and act. Martin Luther King Jrs words resonate: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Composer Mary Watkins was a teenager in 1955, close in age to Emmett Till. She lived in a small black community in Pueblo, Colorado. We began our collaboration on the Emmett Till opera in 2013. Her music expresses the deep and lasting impact the Emmett Till tragedy had on her life and on her community. She draws on a wide range of musical expression to create the vivid characters and emotional tone for one of the twentieth century’s enduring tragedies.
Through the libretto and extraordinary score, Mary Watkins and I seek to pay respect to the greatness of ordinary people who stood up, suffered, and continue to struggle to bring about change in this country. We consider Emmett Till not only a work of art but an act of resistance. See www.MaryDWatkins.com