Review: “Benevolence” at Penumbra Theatre

Emmett Till’s legacy is staged in a drama that evokes horror and hums atop fantastic performances

Dame-Jasmine Hughes as Beulah Melton in benevolence

Courtesy Penumbra Theatre

TV, newspapers, magazines turn a tragedy into a story, which becomes a political movement, then maybe a law.

Years later, literary nonfiction might wrestle with what playwright Ifa Bayeza calls such tragedies’ “epic proportions.”

In benevolence, the second in a trilogy of plays, Bayeza aims to “accommodate” those proportions in the case of Emmett Till, she says in program notes. (Catch the world premiere at Penumbra Theatre through March 10.)

She started with trilogy-opener The Ballad of Emmett Till, at Penumbra in 2014. It scaled down the epic by focusing on Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi, in a 1955 act of racist rage. Till’s mother insisted on an open-casket funeral, exposing his killers’ brutality. Jet magazine published photos. Till no longer had a face. An all-white jury acquitted the men. The civil rights movement reared. Later, those men confessed.

What led up to the monstrous crime is a matter of dispute, purportedly hinging on Till’s passing flirtation with a white woman, 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant. The scene usually starts with Till entering a convenience store owned by one of his killers, Carolyn’s husband, the 24-year-old Roy. Carolyn herself is running the counter.

But that’s not where benevolence starts. Tectonics shudder underneath Bayeza’s new play—slowly breaking open into those fabled dimensions. We register the cultural fallout of Till’s death through conflicts separately besetting a black couple and the white Bryant couple. No actor plays Till. No direct representation of him appears onstage. Instead, he becomes Carolyn’s ghost. He becomes the black couple’s crucible. Surprising stage directions evoke something like cinematic horror, while magnetic performances pull two acts through domestic grit and toward uncanny surrealism. Both couples (the first act following the white couple; the second, the black couple) uncover the ways Till’s legacy continues to reveal itself. To us mortals, the young, black Chicago native who wanted to purchase candy feels like an enduring American presence, at the same time that he’s merely the boy of Bayeza’s first play.

Carolyn and Ray Bryant, played by Sara Marsh and Peter Christian Hansen

Courtesy Penumbra Theatre

We open on Carolyn (Sara Marsh) playfully nipping at Ray, Roy’s twin brother. (Peter Christian Hansen plays both roles, plus two others.)

Carolyn is cheating on Roy with Ray. She’s dragged along by both of them, otherwise stuck in a clerk job that’s just a monotonous series of chores. Until, that is, a new customer walks in. Bayeza throws a phantom veil over Till’s stop at the convenience store. It marks a tonal shift, when the play snaps out of its unflinching march through the Bryants’ Southern-drawled racism and sneaks in an outsider perspective—even if we only glimpse that perspective through Marsh’s reactions to a silent, invisible figure.

Psychological revenge horror begins to take shape. It’s the self-afflicted haunting of Carolyn, a hero we do not like. She never fully contends with the atrocities she enables, even as she ages into a scene drawn from her actual, equivocating recollections of her husband’s actions before an investigator. (Carolyn admitted to lying in real life.) Racism has rotted her judgment.

The lust that twisted through the opening scene, between Carolyn and Ray, meanwhile, twists further and further. As a seated witness, she embellishes on her and Till’s transaction until it fogs over as sex fantasy. Freudian ripples build. At last, a set change recalls (for me, at least) the eldritch darkness lurking in movies like The Babadook and Hereditary. Only, in benevolence, it’s true history that casts the shadows, which time has only elongated. Difficult not to think of the news covering violence against young black men today, especially during voiceovers recounting the Till case between scenes.

Parts of the play’s loyalty to that true history can make following along tough: the Bryants’ midcentury Southern accents, Hansen playing twins with little to distinguish them.

We don’t feel for any of the first-act characters, unsurprisingly. Their racist swagger and dogmatic lying curdle their chances at redemption. This mood, although weighty and sickening, feels right—especially during a cultural moment of delayed justice for historic wrongs.

The second act, starring the black couple, embraces the audience in comparison. Bayeza weaves as much Gothic intricacy into her gorgeous, literary writing, which the lead women get to deliver in unfussy monologues. But this time, we comfortably sympathize with the speaker.

Beulah and Clinton Melton, played by Dame-Jasmine Hughes and Darrick Mosley

Courtesy Penumbra Theatre

Especially since that speaker is Dame-Jasmine Hughes. As the heat-giving, iron-willed Beulah Melton—also based on a real person, a woman trying to raise four kids, hawk handmade rag dolls, and coexist with an unfaithful husband—Hughes sings, without ever letting you realize she’s singing. She’s just living up there onstage.

In the quieter role of her husband, auto mechanic Clinton Melton, Darrick Mosley imbues a repentant, exceedingly average man with introspective sensitivity. Clinton is rattled by Till’s death. The news plays across Mosley’s body like an illness: While Beulah lashes out at the NAACP’s attention—so sensational when crimes like this continually doom black people to namelessness and the bog—Clinton can’t shake his duty as a witness. Maybe he can keep the justice system from failing black people this time.

The darkness that rimmed the first act has long ago spilled into Beulah and Clinton’s home. They’ve had to create normalcy in the gory, gaping-mawed set, ironing, arguing, fixing dinner. But they can’t anticipate the depths to which Till’s murder will take them.

We get to know the characters so personally that their historic factuality might come as a jostling reminder. The Ballad of Emmett Till freed Till’s memory from myth. Inversely, this play passes that responsibility to the white couple, while the Meltons earn a rich, poetic retelling of their largely forgotten story.

Toward the end, the lowercase-b “benevolence” of the title surfaces as a hopeful hypothetical. It’s not, in other words, the injunctive capital-b “Benevolence” that justice could, but does not, deliver.

The humility of this non-request brings out all the spine-tingling humanity within a superbly acted, chillingly directed and set-designed show. Beulah gives her final soliloquey—via voiceover, echoing Till’s displacement—and falls nostalgically into graceful stage direction that foregrounds her story, her personhood, her desires, her love. But director Talvin Wilks makes sure we leave firmly contextualized in Bayeza’s epic proportions. The perverse circumstances. The greater, unfinished reckoning. Emmett Till, Beulah, and Clinton are still with us, even as they are, most pointedly, without. If remembering their names approximates a haunting, what are we doing to achieve rest, to find release, to make right?

Penumbra Theatre
Through March 10

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