Antonio Michael Woodard as Emmett Till is giving one of the most original and impressive performances I’ve seen in DC. Now appearing in two parts of Ifa Bayeza’s must-see The Till Trilogy — The Ballad of Emmett Till and That Summer in Sumner — Woodard’s Emmett is like the center of gravity for those two plays. I cannot imagine either work having the same impact apart from his indelible performance.
Emmett is Woodard’s second role on a DC stage. His first was in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre Company, where he played David, the fictional young son of the fictional preacher Margaret Alexander. Now in The Till Trilogy at Mosaic Theater, he plays the 14-year-old real-life son of Mamie Till-Bradley, whose decision to keep open the lynched boy’s coffin galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.
On stage as Emmett, Woodward had me so believing he was 14 that I had to make a mental adjustment before our talk to remember he’s really not. (This interview was conducted on Zoom and has been edited for length and clarity.)
Emmett Till was a real person and his weight in history is great. Do you ever feel the weight of the role on your shoulders?
Antonio: Absolutely. I felt the heaviness before we even started rehearsal, I still feel it, but it’s never a burden. I know I’m on a mission and I have a job to do.
Would you talk about some of the choices you made to make Emmett come alive as a 14-year-old so credibly?
I’ve had the chance to play several younger people, but I also had the help of our director [Talvin Wilks], Ifa [Bayeza] our playwright, and our assistant director Sandi Holloway. Our dramaturg Faedra Chatard Carpenter supplied me with a copious amount of information — like, his favorite music, the candy he liked the most, what famous actresses he thought were beautiful at the time, and his favorite comedians. I also tapped into his personality traits informed by Ifa about his joy, his larger-than-life personality, his wittiness, and I try my best to incorporate all of that every day.
There were qualities in your performance that reminded me of a young Sammy Davis Jr.
I thought I might be imagining things, and then I heard in an interview where you said the first song you learned as a child was one of his.
“Mr. Bojangles.” When I was about five or six years old, my aunt Dr. Tommie “Tonea” Stewart, who’s a dynamic actress herself, came to my grandmother’s house in North Oakland, California. She saw something in me as a kid and said, “Come to the piano.” Her sister started playing and Dr. Stewart said, “I want you to move your feet like this, and then sing, shuffle your feet around and sing a little bit.” From that day, she made an imprint on my heart and an impact in my life.
Emmett Till was given specific advice about how to behave in a white supremacist world. That’s in the play. When you were growing up, what advice did you get?
I got a lot of advice because my grandparents were from the South, Louisiana and Mississippi. I was taught to be very cautious of certain people. How to behave in public, how to interact with people, how to be respectful of my elders. My father also taught me to be aware of my surroundings, and know when a situation is getting hot. Also because I grew up in Oakland, California, I was raised around many different nationalities, people from all over. So I didn’t really worry too much about white supremacy. It wasn’t a problem then. I think white people in Oakland at that time knew they could only go so far in that city. I knew about the Black Panther Party and our history as a people so that knowledge reminded me of who I was always.
In The Till Trilogy, the pivotal event that precipitated two white men’s kidnapping and murder of Emmet is treated as the simplest and quietest of stage moments. Emmett purchases bubble gum from Caroline Bryant and places a coin into her hand instead of leaving it on the counter, as white Mississippians expected African Americans to do. It’s an electric moment and the scene is repeated in both The Ballad of Emmett Till and That Summer in Sumner. The audience knows that simple single incident will have momentous consequences. Are you aware of how the audience is taking that moment in?
I can hear sometimes how it lands on them. I can hear deep breaths. I can hear, “Oh no,” because they know exactly where this story is about to go.
Emmett is not aware of what just happened. He’s just a young boy. She put out her hand, he put the dime in her hand. He goes to the candy store all the time, this is normal. Being from the North he doesn’t know what that even means. But I do sometimes from the stage hear the reactions from the audience.
That moment is heartbreaking. It’s so slight.
It’s heartbreaking because he’s innocent and hasn’t a clue of the danger he is in.
In the plays, there are episodes and graphic expressions of white-on-Black hate and violence. In The Ballad of Emmett Till, it’s enacted by Black actors; in That Summer in Sumner, it’s enacted by both white and Black actors. In both, as Emmett, you get the brunt. How have you and the rest of the cast prepared to handle all that racial animus?
Well, we had a wonderful fight and intimacy choreographer, Sierra Young. When we started talking about how we were going to move through it, it was not easy for me mentally. I was like, “Okay, this is it, we’re going to have to do this,” so I just jumped in. While rehearsing I made a point to give it at least 75 to 80 percent every time because I wanted to know what it was going feel like, so that by the time I got on stage, I already knew what my body was going to experience.
We also all have a love and respect for each other as a cast. I feel very safe anytime we get to that point because I know that my castmates have my back. Almost immediately when we get off stage, they ask, “Are you okay? Is everything good?” We check in with each other to make sure that we are protecting ourselves.
What happens to Emmett on stage is horrible to watch. Even for someone who’s an experienced theatergoer and knows this is fight choreography, it’s all been worked out, you want to know if the performers are okay. And you don’t get a chance to ask.
No, you don’t get to. But as I stated previously as soon as we get backstage, the concern is immediate: “Are you good? Is everything all right?” It is difficult but we have to tell the truth. It’s much easier now because we’ve been doing it for a while. But we have to tell it. So we must fully go there.
Billie Krishawn’s performance as Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till-Bradley, is so poignant and wonderful. Would you talk about Emmett’s bond with his actual mother?
Well, he absolutely loved his mother. She was the apple of his eye, and he was hers. They were very, very close. Like Emmett says, “My family is what you call tight-knit.” They all lived together: the grandmother, the mother, and he as well. He was her pride and joy, and she was his queen.
Did you read up about Emmett’s family history when you prepared for the role?
For years I have been interested in Emmett Till’s story. From a young age, I’ve watched several of the interviews with his family, and documentaries about his life.
You were preparing for the role before you got it?
Yes!! And the knowledge of his family relationships really helped me on stage. But there was some information I learned in the rehearsal process about his father that was very jarring. I had no idea that there was a connection between their deaths. It really took me for a loop when I first heard about his father’s time in the military in Italy. While stationed there a situation arose with a white woman, and several of those soldiers were executed, his father being one of them — without evidence of whether it was true or not. So for that to mirror the end of Emmett’s life, it just blew me away.
Emmett probably did not know that growing up.
No, he didn’t.
He never knew his father.
He only knew him through his ring. That’s why he never took it off.
That was the thing that identified his body.
Yes. The ring.
What impact do you hope the plays and your extraordinary work in them will have on audiences and on the world?
My job is to make the listener and the viewer think twice about how we view Black men, Black boys. My job is to always impress upon them, what do we do next? What can I do? How can I help? How can I be of service to humanity? How can I walk down the street and not judge someone? I don’t know their story. I don’t know why they’re out there. I don’t even know what’s going on. But how can I be of service? If I see them doing something that they don’t need to do, how can I help steer them in the right direction? How can I be of assistance? How can I not prejudge a situation based upon what I see in the media, or based upon the construct that somebody else has put together? How can I be of service? That’s what I want to leave with people.
I watched a documentary about Beah Richards, who was a phenomenal actress, called Beah: A Black Woman Speaks. And I remember her saying the job of the actor is “to catch the conscience of the audience. It’s not about making your living as an actor. It’s to catch the conscience.” And that’s what I try to do.
The Till Trilogy plays in repertory through November 22, 2022 — on Wednesdays at 8 PM, Thursdays at 11 AM and 8 PM, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM and 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM — presented by Mosaic Theater Company performing in the Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For the schedule and to purchase tickets ($29–$64), go online or contact the Box Office at (202) 399-7993 or firstname.lastname@example.org from 11 AM – 5 PM Monday through Friday, or two hours prior to a performance.
The program for The Till Trilogy is online here.
The Ballad of Emmett Till – 90 minutes no intermission
That Summer in Sumner – 105 minutes, 15-minute intermission
Benevolence – 120 minutes, 15-minute intermission
COVID Safety: All patrons are required to be masked while inside performance spaces. The use of N95 masks is encouraged. Masks may be optional in other areas of the building, including lobbies. The complete Atlas Performing Arts Center COVID policy is here.
Antonio Michael Woodard is honored to make his debut with Mosaic Theater Company. Off-Broadway credits include: Macbeth at Classic Stage Company (director: John Doyle). Regional credits include: Need Your Love at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park (director: K.J. Sanchez); The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre Company (director: Whitney White); A Human Being, of a Sort at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (director: Whitney White); Ragtime at Trinity Rep (director: Curt Columbus); and The Amen Corner and Mississippi Goddamn at Pyramid Theatre Company (director: Ken- Matt Martin). Television credits include: Evil (CBS; director: Peter Sollett). Awards include: Cloris Leachman Best Actor nominee (The Amen Corner) and Irene Ryan Best Actor finalist, Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival Region IV. He received his MFA in Acting from Brown University/Trinity Rep and graduated from Alabama State University with a BA in Theatre Arts. I dedicate my performance to my Lord and Savior, my parents, my entire family, and to every young Black boy in America.
‘The Till Trilogy’ at Mosaic Theater is beautiful, haunting, and horrifying (review by Gregory Ford, October 20, 2022)
Brutality and transfiguration in ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ at Mosaic Theater (review by Gregory Ford, November 3, 2022)