On D.C. stages, Emmett Till and da Vinci illuminated to mixed effect


For all the verbiage of “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” it’s the sound of whistling that makes the most haunting impression. Till, portrayed by Antonio Michael Woodard in Mosaic Theater Company’s protractedly solemn mounting, is a 14-year-old live wire with a stutter, a disability the teenager tries to overcome by breaking out into whistles.

That habit, also a flirtatious impulse, will set in motion the horrific events of Ifa Bayeza’s play, the first of three evenings making up Bayeza’s “The Till Trilogy” in Mosaic’s space in the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The two others — “Benevolence” and the world premiere of “That Summer in Sumner” — combine to form a tragic triptych about the murder by Southern racists of a young Black man in 1955, an ugly chapter that resounds sadly through time.

Drama that tackles sensitive subjects and seeks to dissect provocative minds is on the agenda this fall in Washington theater, the result being that playgoers have their pick of challenging evenings all over town. Studio Theatre, for instance, is producing the regional premiere of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” Will Arbery’s study of the fissures in faith-based conservatism. And Shakespeare Theatre Company has on the boards writer-director Mary Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” a revival of a 1993 performance piece that reveals in three dimensions the virtuosic sandbox of Leonardo’s imagination.

Each production admirably attempts to confer artistic concision and order on a big and complex topic, but the effect in each case is a muted, mixed bag. “The Ballad of Emmett Till” devotes an inordinate amount of time to underlining Till’s youth and naivete; “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” while evocatively well acted, struggles with only limited success to find an emotionally cohesive core; and “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is demonstrably clever but ultimately an achievement in visual design more than dramaturgy.

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Mosaic’s “Till Trilogy” coincidentally starts as a major motion picture, “Till,” arrives in movie theaters — the convergence is an indication of how indelibly the young man’s gruesome murder remains a stain on the nation. Under Talvin Wilks’s direction, “The Ballad of Emmett Till” has been given a handsomely dignified physical frame: a simple wide wooden platform designed by Andrew Cohen, onto which tables and other set pieces are (noisily) wheeled.

An excellent six-member cast — including Billie Krishawn, Jason Bowen, Rolonda Watts, Jaysen Wright and Vaughn Ryan Midder — plays the friends, relatives and tormentors of Till, arrested on a visit to Mississippi for whistling at a White woman. The drama’s most intense spotlight is trained on Woodard, portraying a carefree teen from a comparatively more tolerant Chicago, who is unschooled in the lethal racial crosscurrents of the Deep South.

Reframing the enduring story of a brutal American murder

Woodard ably conveys Till’s understandable obliviousness, but the play for far too long dwells on this characteristic, like a storm stalled over a threatened landscape. It segues harshly in its final movement to the brutality inflicted on the martyred Till. An audience, the playwright seems to be saying, must witness the torture that this young innocent experienced. Watching “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” though, comes across less as an exercise in powerful theater than as a penitential act.

Arbery, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” creates crisp debate in his character-driven account of a party among graduates of the fictional Transfiguration College, an influential hotbed of conservative Catholicism. The arguments that bubble up, at the intersection of religion and politics, particularly concerning a rationalization of Donald Trump-worship, are fierce and punishing; the best interlude is a confrontation between the always-magnetic Laura C. Harris, as a caustic justifier of ends justifying means, and the always-bracing Naomi Jacobson, as the scoffing, blunt-spoken new college president.

I found the proceedings, directed competently by Sivan Battat, all a bit opaque and perhaps better suited to those more fully steeped in the rhetoric of faith-centered conservative thought. There is a sense suffusing “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” — whose title refers to a cycle in history signaling salvation by a rising generation — of Arbery’s profound desire to illuminate a community that gets far too little attention in the theater world. The light this evening casts just isn’t wide enough.

Chicago’s Goodman Theatre revived Zimmerman’s “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” earlier this year, and now that production has moved to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Klein Theatre, where it engages the mind with its scholarship and dazzles the eye with its ingenuity. Leonardo’s astonishing inventions and discoveries are illustrated here, by eight physically adroit actors, on a set by Scott Bradley inspired by the transformative genius of Leonardo himself.

Using walls of drawers — representing seemingly countless compartments of the 15th-century artist-inventor’s polymathic brain — the actors devise representations of his achievements in art and science. (The “Mona Lisa” was among them.) One of the captivating sequences details the Renaissance development of perspective and the means by which painters move the eyes of spectators through an otherwise one-dimensional work of art.

Still, “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” is more extraordinarily well-executed lecture (taken from Leonardo’s own jottings) than dynamic theater. Zimmerman would go on to create a Tony-winning tableau, “Metamorphoses,” out of the stories of Ovid, set in and around an indoor pool. Here, one gets an instructive perspective on the early machinations of the mind of a director of our own time.

The Ballad of Emmett Till, by Ifa Bayeza. Directed by Talvin Wilks. Set, Andrew Cohen; lighting, Alberto Segarra; costumes, Danielle Preston; sound and music, Kwamina “Binnie” Biney. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Nov. 19 as part of “The Till Trilogy” at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. mosaictheater.com.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning, by Will Arbery. Directed by Sivan Battat. Set, Yu Shibagaki; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; lighting, Amith Chandrashaker; sound, Sinan Refik Zafar. About 110 minutes. With Sophia Lillis, Louis Reyes McWilliams, Gregory Connors. Through Oct. 30 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. studiotheatre.org.

The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Set, Scott Bradley; costumes, Mara Blumenfeld; lighting, T.J. Gerckens; sound, Michael Bodeen; original music, Bodeen and Miriam Sturm. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 29 at Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. shakespearetheatre.org.

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