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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

benevolence
Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Skin of Our Teeth and Stewardess!


Dame-Jasmine Hughes
and Darrick Mosley

Photo by Allen Weeks
My dictionary offers the following definition for the word "benevolence": 1) Tendency to be kind: an inclination to be kind and helpful or generous; 2)Generous act: something done or given out of kindness. Not until the conclusion of Ifa Bayeza's play benevolence is the possibility of such a human trait or generous act suggested. Up to that final moment, we bear witness to a great deal of the polar opposite, malevolence, defined in the same dictionary as, "Wanting to cause harm: having or showing a desire to harm others." Yet, with her closing thought, Bayeza leaves us with the suggestion that some good, some gesture of kindness or generosity, may sift down from the wreckage of cruelty, pain and degradation that accompanied the murder in 1955 of 14-year-old Emmet Till.

benevolence is receiving a gut-wrenching world premiere production by Penumbra Theatre. In 2014, Penumbra received acclaim for its staging of Bayeza's The Ballad of Emmet Till. In that play, which premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in 2008, she created a portrait of the character of Emmet Till himself, and the exuberance and native goodness of this youth from Chicago who suffered culture shock in his unfamiliarity with Southern ways during a summer visit with cousins in Mississippi, and then, after the horrendous acts that took his life, became a martyr inspiring others to act on behalf of justice and righteousness. The playwright has stated that benevolence is the third play in what will be a trilogy dealing with the Emmet Till murder, with the second play yet to come. benevolence frames Till's murder within the story of two women whose lives become defined by the incident, combining the historical record with creative speculation about relationships and motives among those involved.

Act one is seen through the eyes of Caroline Bryant, a white 21-year-old one-time beauty queen working in the store her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milan operate, primarily selling goods to black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Caroline reported that while making a purchase, Emmet made physical and verbal advances toward her. There were no other witnesses. Several days later, Roy Bryant, J.W Milan, and a pack of others kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered Emmet. Bryant and Milan were summarily acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. Soon afterward, they sold their story for publication in Look magazine, confessing to their heinous deeds with absolutely no remorse. In fact, in 2008 Caroline admitted in an interview with Timothy B. Tyson, author of the 2017 book "The Blood of Emmet Till," that she fabricated most of her story.

Bayeza portrays Roy as an abusive husband who bullies Caroline into greatly exaggerating Till's offenses, justifying his actions as her protector. Caroline is seen to be unhappy in her marriage, sexually provocative with other men, trapped with two young children and expressing scorn for customers who she considers to be far beneath her. Her complicity in this savage crime seems to drain the life force from her, leaving her bereft in a way far less visible than those mourning for the well-loved Emmet Till, but still suffering a great loss.


Sarah Marsh and Peter Christian Hansen
Photo by Allen Weeks
Act two introduces us to Clinton Melton, an African-American gas station attendant and mechanic, and his wife Beulah. The record shows that Clinton was shot to death by a white customer, Elmer Kimball, while filling the gas tank in the car Kimball was driving. Though not charged, it was suspected that Kimball was one of the men involved in Till's murder, and there is also speculation that the car he was driving when he murdered Clinton Melton belonged to J.W. Milan. Bayeza embroiders this record with speculation that Clinton had actually borne witness to the Emmet Till murder. It is primarily through Beulah's eyes that this part of the tragedy is presented, to which Bayeza adds a view of both the joy and heartache in Clinton and Beulah's marriage. The shocking outcome, which goes back to historical record, suggests that there is no end to the ferocity of hatred so ingrained.

Except for a brief introductory prelude, only two actors appear in each act. In act one, Sara Marsh portrays Caroline Bryant and Peter Christian Hansen plays Roy Bryant, his brother Ray, a lawyer who coaches her to prepare testimony for her husband's trial, and an investigator who questions her when the FBI re-opened the case in 2004. In act two, Dame-Jasmine Hughes takes on the role of Beulah as well as Mary Johnson, a local girl who visits Clinton while he works at the service station, and Delores Grisham, one of Beulah and Clinton Melton's surviving children. Darrick Mosley plays Clinton and, briefly, Medgar Evers, who was NAACP Field Secretary in Mississippi, trying to provide support to Beulah after her husband's murder. Like Emmet Till's murder in 1955, Evers' assassination in 1963 was a trigger for expanded national attention to the civil rights struggle, and increased activism.

Bayeza's decision to separate this piece into two discrete halves, albeit integrally related, is a mixed blessing for her play. On one hand, it is honest. These two women, and the men in their lives, lived out their fears, hopes and regrets in total remove from one another. Neither Caroline Bryant nor Beulah Melton gave thought to the turmoil in the other's life, deluged as they were with their own misery. Each act dramatically holds together as a whole, with powerful storytelling that takes one's breath away. What is lost are the connections, not only historically, but viscerally, that cross-cutting between the two narratives might have offered, to to reveal even more dramatically the tragic legacy of American racism that dates back to slavery.

Given the play's structure, director Talvin Wilks (who also directed Penumbra's The Ballad of Emmet Till in 2014) maintains a tight core of suspense in each act, building suspense and tension even when anyone familiar with the history knows the outcome. The underscoring quickens the pulse both of the play and the audience, and Marcus Dilliard's lighting provides shifts between light and darkness that urge us to stay attentive.

All four actors—Marsh, Hansen, Hughes and Mosely—are among the finest working in the Twin Cities, and they deliver the kind of outstanding performances we have come to expect from them. Marsh conveys the deep roots of her scorn for the sharecroppers she is forced to sell to, and the swift totality of her pivot from some semblance of the truth to keeping herself from suffering any losses. Mosely is riveting as he arrives home after encountering the jarring evidence of Till's murder, completely undone, while Hughes matches him, expressing terror over what this can mean for his life, and for her and her children. They convey an utter, complete hopelessness with no way out alive, a dilemma as corrosively cruel as anything else depicted in this play. Hughes is magnificent, summoning passion and dignity, in her encounter with Medgar Evers, and delivers a welcome note of grace as Delores Grisham.

The remarkable play is ensconced by Maruti Evans' also remarkable setting. Rows of straight-backed wooden chairs, akin to those in the rural Mississippi courtrooms where so-called trials, like that of Bryant and Milan, took place, suggesting that everything before us is submitted as evidence for a case that has yet to be heard. A row of men's hats hangs over these seats (the anonymous citizens who witness these injustices, perhaps), the walls bear scrawled text that reference the thirst for justice and freedom, and video monitors provide a glimpse of the town of Money and surrounding environs.

Bayeza has written a powerful work of theater, whether considered as a pair of closely linked one-acts or a whole. The lessons from our past continue to send out tendrils that weigh upon our present. Painful as they may be to witness, the cost of not heeding those lessons is certainly far greater. benevolence is an essential addition to the documentation of and rumination on our bloody national narrative.

benevolence, through March 10, 2019, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are Adults $15.00 - $40.00, seniors 62+ $5.00 discount, students with valid ID $15.00, one ticket per ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.

Playwright: Ifa Bayeza; Director: Talvin Wilks; Scenic Design: Maruti Evans; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: John Acarregui; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Projections Design: Kathy Maxwell; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Salima Y. Seale; Technical Director: Jeb Hults; Production Manager: Merritt Rodriguez.

Cast: Peter Christian Hansen (Ray Bryant/JJ Breland/David Killingworth), Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Beulah Melton, Mary Johnson, Delores Grisham), Sarah Marsh (Caroline Bryant), Darrick Mosley (Clinton Melton, Medgar Evans).


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