Friday, 21 May 2010


Have you ever crossed a line you didn’t know was there, wandered into unknown territory, oversold yourself, bragged and not delivered, were you ever too big for your britches?

Anybody who knows me knows I like to push past borders, bust genres, and eradicate separation. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t.

Emmett Till is a name, a story, a warning, a message, a smoke signal, a flare sent up; he is a bellweather, a symbol, a cause to rally behind.

He was also a boy. He was just a boy when he died. A boy with dreams and plans, a mama, but no daddy. He had a personality and predilections. Family. He was a person.

The Ballad of Emmett Till, now playing at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood, gets it right. As a night of theatre, it is one of the best you can see in LA. It tells the story of a boy, caught up in that combination of his personality, the forces that shaped him, social mores and the times he lived that we all must wrestle. For Bobo, as he was nicknamed, this combination proved tragic. He did not live to be a man, but he died one.

The ensemble is razor sharp in their work together, thanks to meticulous direction by Shirley Jo Finney and precise and evocative choreography by Ameenah Kaplan. Ifa Bayeza’s elegant play calls for tremendous collaborative work and they deliver. As Emmett Till, Lorenz Arnell – 18 -- is shockingly proficient; every moment of the piece is fulfilled and suffused with such life and truth he carries you into a world you never thought you’d care to visit and makes it so you don’t want to leave.

Not every circumstance you find yourself in will lead to death from a couple of wrong steps and a dash of hubris, but some will, and they are not all relegated to the past.

Saria Idana’s Homeless in Homeland is premiering this weekend at ArtShare LA. It is a piece that presents material she has written and gleaned from her travels in Israel, Palestine, and the occupied territories. It is a look into an ages-old conflict, refashioned anew in the 20th Century. It weaves stories of Jews and Arabs around Idana’s poetry and personal story. It is a powerful 80 minutes, and has moments of beauty and humanity not often found in one-person shows.

What emerges from this piece is the idea of personal geography. Like Emmett Till, Idana has traveled a long way from home to a land of different customs and mores, one which is supposed to represent lineage. Once there, she cannot block out the very obvious human conflict and injustice, which leads her quite literally to question her place.

Both pieces get underneath the inherent racism in their surprisingly comparable situations by looking at individuals and their struggles directly. What is at stake here, for both oppressed and oppressor, is the ideas of personal freedom, of home and homeland, of identity. Bypassing the politically charged buzzword, they explore the universal in small contexts.

As a Jewess, Idana wants Israel to be home, as a humanist, she cannot embrace the system of oppression she encounters, as an artist she is not free to ignore it as so many do. A northern city boy with dreams of a big future, Emmett Till neither heeds, nor believes the warnings he receives about what is acceptable behaviour in the rural American South of 1955. The Palestinians Idana encounters are armed only with stones against a well-funded modern army; Emmett Till is armed with intelligence, over-confidence, and charm against a system of oppression ingrained into a culture centuries before his birth.

Emmett Till is everything we tell ourselves when we are unsure of our journey, but know clearly our destination – fake it til you make it; showing up is 90% of life, lucky is just another word for ready. Emmett Till is probably just what Idana felt crossing the border into the West Bank for the first time.

Most of the time, being Emmett Till will get you by. Slide by on a smile and a compliment, eyes on the prize and it will all work out in the end. How many times have you been Emmett Till? How much has it cost you?

Nobody could convey to Bobo that sometimes we need to tread lightly; he wasn’t ready to hear it, and it cost him his life. He was just being himself, like the Jews in Europe as Hitler rose to power, like the Palestinians in their homeland in 1948.

Emmett Till’s transgression was walking into an existing situation thinking it didn’t apply to him personally. The rules were in place, but he wanted outside the rules – he wanted to be looked at as in individual. The Jews in pre-World War II Europe, the Palestinians before 1948, suddenly had rules brought down on their individuality and freedom and they fought against them however they might, mentally, physically, emotionally. Idana takes her American-ness, her Jewishness, and crosses the border into a world too simple and too complex to bear, the stories so heavy, they weigh down her own identity.

Purity transgresses convoluted complexity simply by naming it. Yet there are many born whose job it is to name it and there is always a price to pay for that particular privilege.

I am Emmett Till. Maybe you are, too.