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 in my largely white world would talk about what happened, a child brutally tortured and lynched, and the failure of justice. White supremacy and Jim Crow ruled. “You’re a Yankee – you don’t begin to understand how it is down here.” I decided to leave my uncaring and dismissive dorm mates and was granted permission to live in International House, an on campus French chateau that housed the graduate global women students. My new roommate, Cyra Miron was from Guatemala, one of many new friends from around the world.
Over the years the pain of Emmett Till’s murder continued to haunt my heart. In the winter of 1992 I awoke at dawn immersed in a spiritual mandate to write a play about Emmett Till. How could I, a white woman, write about this tragedy. A white teacher, Roanne Taylor, entered my mind. A preacher’s daughter, she teaches high school science in Drew, Mississippi. Roanne Taylor is the play’s one invented character. She cares, but is silent. “ What good is your caring if you do not speak or act.” She represents what Martin Luther King Jr called the ultimate tragedy: the silence of the good people.
In the early 90s the tragedy of Emmett Till remained neglected by white history. Only his mother Mamie Till, her Uncle Mose Wright, and steady ally Alvin Sykes kept up the call for justice. Mamie Till, through outrage and grief, transformed from a private citizen to an activist. Her courageous insistence on an open casket helped to spark the civil rights movement. “The world must see what was done to my son. The world must help me tell the story.”
When the play, Emmett, Down in My Heart, was finished, we had a table reading at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theatre Playwrights Workshop. In 2013 it went on to the first staged reading of Emmett, Down in My Heart, at the Culture Project, NYC, with Gena Bardwell as Mamie Till and Mercedes Ruehl as Roanne Taylor. The audience rose for a standing ovation! Musician friends Lucille Field and Patsy Rogers excitedly exclaimed: “This has to be an opera!” They arranged an introduction for Mary Watkins and me on the phone – New York to Oakland – Oakland to New York.
Several months later, Mary Watkins flew to Tucson, Arizona to see a performance of Emmett, Down in My Heart. The play had won first prize and a production at a new political theater, Tucson Alliance of Dramatic Arts. Another standing ovation! Mary was enthusiastic: “You write the libretto, I will compose the score.” Our amazing and harmonic collaboration began.Five years of development, workshops and three sing-throughs, now bring Emmett Till, the opera, to the concert stage.