A "River" of Civil Rights History—in Music

Danielle Dreilinger
April 28, 2009
Javelle Stephens (as Emmett "Bo" Till) and Lauren Tenney perform a staged reading of The River Is Me.
Tavonna Miller as Mamie Till
David Wyatt (center) as Moses Wright sings "Dar He" in the courtroom as he dares to point out Roy Bryant as the man who abducted Bo. With Tavonna Miller (left) and Kirby Dockery (right).
The chorus sings the finale of <em>The River Is Me</em>. Left to right: Javelle Stephens, Torrence Nelson, Lauren Tenney, Jazmin McRay, Wil Viozzi, Ilana Friedman.
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
Photo by Phil Farnsworth

Torture, murder, racism, and injustice might not be the first themes you'd consider for a musical. But the story of Emmett Till inspired Berklee professor Michael Wartofsky and his collaborator Sukari Jones to create The River Is Me, a striking, tragic, yet ultimately uplifting reimagination of the Emmett Till story.

In 1955, two white men killed 14-year-old Till and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River. His "crime"? Flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant. The all-white jury acquitted the accused, who confessed shortly thereafter to a magazine for $4,000. The crime galvanized the civil rights movement, helping fuel the Montgomery bus boycott.

On March 23, a crowd packed the David Friend Recital Hall to watch a concert reading of The River Is Me cosponsored by Student Affairs, the Office for Cultural Diversity, and the Office of Academic Affairs. A week later, Allen Bush, Berklee's director of media relations sat down with Wartofsky to discuss the experience.

The Emmett Till story is more than 50 years old. I was curious how many students were aware of it.

At the auditions, my impression was the majority of students had not heard of Emmett Till or had only scant knowledge or understanding. There certainly were students who were very familiar with the story, and they were drawn to the project because of that. But others were more drawn to the opportunity to do a theatrical piece.

How did you educate students about the story?

The first time we all met as a cast, we did a read-through of the entire script and opened up for questions. The director, [alumna/Five-Week Summer Performance Program faculty] A'lisa Miles, showed excerpts from a documentary on Emmett Till, testimony from his cousins, and a lot of historical footage.

Sukari Jones, who wrote the book and lyrics, explained that as artists we were interpreting the events, using our imagination. In one song, for instance, we had Mamie Till saying goodbye to her son at a train station while simultaneously onstage we represented Emmett whistling at Carolyn in the store.

The full story included kidnapping, torture, mutilation, drowning, and an unfair trial. What was the students' reaction to that?

It's hard to grapple with. It's hard for me to grapple with. We had a discussion about whether people are evil or their acts are evil. The actors playing Carolyn Bryant and the murderers had a difficult task, but to their credit they really put themselves into their characters' shoes. Our intention is not to minimize the terrible acts but to put them in context, to portray poor whites' fear of changing racial dynamics. These actors also played children to show the path from innocence to indoctrination. The racism was so ingrained.

What was the initial spark for the show?

Several years ago, Sukari was assigned to write something about a historical figure that had some kind of impact on her. She felt like she wouldn't have been in that classroom had it not been for Emmett Till and the outrage that sparked the civil rights movement.

It must have been a heavy task to put this story to music.

I felt a huge weight on my shoulders, which I still do. I want to do justice to the characters, because they are of great significance. We really wanted the play to be filled with joy, and it actually ends on a very joyful, uplifting note about the river of change sweeping the country.

How did the creative process work?

Working with Sukari has been very freeing for me. Each song went through several drafts. That joint search for the music was very rewarding. And I was excited to write a score that was drawing on popular music but also going into dissonance when necessary. You'll hear notes of doo-wop, early rock 'n' roll, blues, and gospel. It often has some kind of dramatic twist.

How did the cast deal with the emotions of the story?

The cast were in general very open and courageous. They jumped into everything. Honestly, we would break out in tears during rehearsals. There's a scene with Mamie Till viewing her son in the coffin—that was really hard to get through. The cast and the directors and the writers were often working through tears. But that's how we knew that we were touching on something that's still very important.

Did the show spark conversations among the actors about race relations?

I think it was more likely an unspoken understanding that this was 2009, and we had a multicultural company working together to heal these old wounds. I have heard from individual students that they've had their own revelations about themselves by working on the difficult material. Our conductor and music director, faculty member Omar Thomas, was motivated to apply for Berklee's yearly trip to build houses in New Orleans [and went in June].

What's next for this musical?

Well, we have high hopes for it, and we are going to hit the pavement. We'll look for opportunities to do readings elsewhere, workshops, ideally a full production at some point.


The musical continued to thrive over the summer. In June, Jones and Wartofsky produced a staged reading at the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program starring Broadway and Off-Broadway performers, with funding from the Frederick Loewe Foundation.

In August, Wartofsky and faculty members Jeri Sykes, Omar Thomas, and Tom Carr recorded eight tracks in Studio A with a student cast and orchestra thanks to a Berklee Faculty Recording Grant.