Like a lot of black parents, Mike Wiley has had “The Talk” with his kids.
Kids of color are different in police officers’ eyes, parents tell their children. Do what they say. Be respectful. Keep your hands visible at all times.
Mamie Till likely had “The Talk” with her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, in August 1955, before he boarded a train in Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Miss. “It’s different down there, son,” she probably said. “Be careful.”
Emmett ended up kidnapped, tortured and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. That, along with other high- and low-profile examples of brutality enacted on people of color, is why parents like Wiley still have to have “The Talk.” He is bringing his one-man play, Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till, to Asheville. It opens Wednesday, Sept. 19, at N.C. Stage Company.
Wiley, an actor and playwright who lives in Pittsboro, will perform some three dozen characters who played a role in Till’s journey to the Mississippi Delta and the hatred he encountered there. Wiley is performing Dar He at N.C. Stage Company at the request of its artistic director, Charlie Flynn-McIver, an “old friend” from the theater world, Wiley says.
The Emmett Till story reverberates today because of increased attention “to police brutality and the death of African-American men in America at the hands of white males,” Wiley says. “Its resonance now is a call to action in our voting booths, in the streets.”
Drawing upon historic interviews, Wiley recreates the events that foreshadow and follow Emmett Till’s brutal death at the hands of J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant after Bryant’s wife, Carolyn Bryant Donham, accused Till of accosting her in the family grocery store. (Falsely, as it turns out, according to the 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till, by Duke University professor Timothy Tyson.)
Milam and Bryant stood trial for Till’s murder. Testifying against them was Emmett’s great-uncle, Moses Wright. Asked by the prosecution to identify the men who kidnapped his great-nephew, Wright pointed to one or both defendants (accounts vary) and said, in his Delta patois, “Dar He.” Wiley used those words for the title of his play.
Milam and Bryant were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. (They later confessed to the crime in an interview with Look magazine. Wright was forced to relocate to Chicago.)
Mamie chose to have an open coffin during her son’s funeral, which brought national attention to the racial injustices and brutalities taking place in Mississippi, the South and the nation, and the event has been credited as being one of the catalysts of the modern civil rights movement.
In 2004, Wiley was taking his plays around the country (his theatrical works highlight other prominent figures in black history, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and Henry “Box” Brown, a Virginia slave who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate) when he heard rapper/singer Kanye West say, in his song “Through the Wire,” that his face after a car wreck looked like Emmett Till’s after that 1955 assault. That annoyed Wiley.
“It set me on a mission to educate young people who may have believed that if Kayne West survived [the car accident], maybe Emmett Till should have survived [lynching],” Wiley says. He can’t remember how long it was before he started writing the play, but he was goaded to do so each time he heard the song. “It was like a needle in my side,” he says.
Performing the play “takes an emotional toll,” Wiley says. “Making a sincere attempt to personalize the characters — the actor’s duty is to be true to the character — is gut-wrenching.”
Wiley grew up in Roanoke, Va., at a time when that city had a black mayor, Noel Calvin Taylor. Wiley saw possibilities for black people, not obstacles. He doesn’t remember the first time he heard about Emmett Till — likely it was before he went to Catawba College in Salisbury and listened to stories about the 1906 lynching of three black men in town.
Wiley’s research into creating Dar He was painful, he says. But it helped him make sense of why some people hate Barack Obama.
“It set me on a course to understanding the backlash that he, as a president, would achieve after he was elected,” Wiley says. The play “came out of a similar kind of backlash — white America in the Deep South and around the county who saw the Brown v. Board of Education as a slap in the face. The killing of Emmett Till was in part a response to that. The lynching of a number of African-American men in that time was part of the pushback.”
He continues, “With the election of Obama, we hoped that ‘The Talk’ wouldn’t have to happen. But sadly, we saw through our smartphone videos and police dash cams that we have to be forever vigilant and have these talks until the arrest rate of people in our black and brown communities comes to a place where it’s normalized.”
This summer, the FBI reopened its investigation into Till’s murder, citing “new information” that it declined to elaborate upon. The tragedy, which took place more than 65 years ago, is still very much in the public consciousness, making Wiley’s production as current as it is historic.
“This [play] is reaching ears that a few years ago may have been deaf,” he says. “But now they are opening and listening and heeding and using the play as a sign of activism.”
WHAT: Dar He: The Story of Emmett Till
WHERE: N.C. Stage, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Wednesday, Sept. 19-Sunday, Sept. 30.Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $10 students/$18-$36 general