Wesley Goodrich learned the story of Emmett Till as a child. Goodrich’s mother, a history teacher, made sure her son knew about the 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago who was murdered by white men in 1955 while visiting relatives in Money, Miss.
By the time Goodrich left his Brooklyn neighborhood to study directing at Pace University in New York City, he firmly believed that history can help you make sense of the present. So in the summer of 2016 when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two black men, became victims of police shootings, Goodrich knew the past and the present were colliding.
“I remember feeling powerless and feeling like if it was happening to other people who looked like me, it would eventually happen to me,” said Goodrich.
It seemed to him a sentiment that many young black men must have felt in 1955 when Emmett Till was killed, accused of flirting with a white woman. “It was the first time the whole country had to confront racism in a tangible way after the Civil War,” Goodrich said. “They had to reckon with it when a 14-year-old boy is laying in a coffin in front of them.”
That summer, Goodrich was inspired to write “A Good Place to Raise a Boy,” a play that details the events leading up to Emmett Till’s death as well as the family’s grief and subsequent response. On Thursday, Goodrich brings a reading of the play to Atlanta as part of the first New Works Festival at Lionheart Theatre in Norcross.
The two-day festival, founded by Goodrich’s classmate and Norcross native Sam Casey, promises to bring a new type of theater experience to metro Atlanta. “The ultimate goal is to have festival viewers enjoy what used to be called experimental theater,” said Casey, who is also a senior at Pace University. Casey hopes to make the festival an annual event that brings young artists from New York City and eventually other cities around the country to work with artists in metro Atlanta and produce innovative theater.
The second day of the festival (Friday) will feature two short plays also by students at Pace University. “Sun (day)” is the story of the first U.S. colony on Venus, where the sun shines only once every seven years. The “Boo Hog” features a mysterious woman in the mountains of Appalachia who is either evil or misunderstood.
Award-winning director Joanie McElroy will lead Atlanta-area actors in a reading of “A Good Place to Raise a Boy.” McElroy noted how the play highlights Mamie Till’s foresight in using her son’s death as a moment to teach the world. “In the play, Ruby Hurley says to Emmett’s mother, ‘Your son woke the country up,’” McElroy said. More than a half-century later, Emmett Till’s death continues to inform generations of Americans.
In 2017, author Timothy B. Tyson revealed in his book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” that Carolyn Donham, the woman Till was accused of flirting with, admitted in 2008 that she had lied about the claims. Last year, the U.S. Justice Department reopened the case, citing new information.
Goodrich was working on his third or fourth draft of the play at the time. “It has lit a fire under me and made me realize in an acute way that the story is important,” he said.
Previously his play has only been read in New York. With the reading in Atlanta, there will be a special visitor on hand. Dorothy Parker-Jarrett, a Norcross educator and first cousin of Mamie Till, will give a special presentation. Jarrett, whose oldest brother was with Emmett at the grocery store during that history-changing moment, has begun to carry on the family tradition of keeping Emmett’s story alive through talks and presentations around the country.
Like Goodrich, she sees the connections between the past and the present. Emmett did not understand as many young black men today do not understand that they will be perceived in a certain way depending on where they are, Jarrett said. “Even now in 2019, there are people in our society who look at certain ethnicities and groups of people in a negative or derogatory way, and I don’t know if that is ever going to change in this country,” she said. “This is such a great opportunity to keep Emmett’s legacy alive and make a connection to then and now, past and present.”
Lionheart Theatre New Works Festival
7 p.m. Jan. 17 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18. Fre. Lionheart Theatre Company, 10 College St., Norcross. 678-938-8518, lionhearttheatre.org. Reservations required by emailing LionheartNewWorks@gmail.com.
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