Live! at the Library: Reflections from the Past, Present and Future with Mosaic Theater

This guest post is by Adrienne Cannon, historian of African American history and culture in the Manuscript Division.

Woman speaking at a podium.

A recording of a special preview of Mosaic Theater’s “The Till Trilogy” is now available.

On September 22, 2022, the Manuscript Division partnered with the Exhibits Office and Mosaic Theater to present Live! at the Library: Reflections from the Past, Present and Future with Mosaic Theater. A recording of the event is now available on the Library of Congress website.

The event began with a special preview of “The Till Trilogy,” a series of plays by noted playwright Ifa Bayeza reflecting on the life, death and legacy of Emmett Till, which premiered in fall 2022 at Mosaic Theater.  Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago, was brutally murdered on August 28, 1955, for whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman, while visiting relatives in Leflore County, Mississippi, near the town of Money. Carolyn Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam kidnapped, tortured, and shot Till, and then dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River where it was discovered three days later. NAACP officials Medgar Evers, Ruby Hurley, and Amzie Moore began the investigation of the murder and secured key witnesses. An all-white jury acquitted Bryant and Milam in September, a verdict that aroused international protest.

Typewritten press release.

A press release from September 1955, which was read aloud at the event. NAACP Records II, Box A 423, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

At the Library, Bayeza discussed her research on Till and read excerpts from each play.  The reading was followed by a performance by the Washington National Opera from Blue, a contemporary opera about racial injustice and police brutality in America. The evening concluded with a powerful “voices from the archive” performance by two professional actors and two Howard University student actors.  The four read documents pertaining to Emmett Till’s murder from the records of the NAACP, which are part of the Manuscript Division’s collections. The selection of documents included the press release the NAACP issued the day after Till’s body was found; a letter from Director of Branches Gloster B. Current to NAACP Branch officers calling “for action by our entire NAACP;” and a press release concerning an editorial criticizing white Mississippians published in the October 1955 issue of Crisis, the monthly journal of the NAACP. The recital of Langston Hughes’s poem “MISSISSIPPI – 1955” was particularly poignant. Hughes dedicated the poem in memory of Till and sent it to the NAACP with permission to release it for publication in any newspaper wishing to use it. The actors also read compelling letters written by ordinary people.

Documents from the NAACP Records, a telegram from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Records, and images from the Prints and Photographs Division were on display in exhibit cases in the Coolidge Auditorium foyer as part of the event.

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