University of Southern Mississippi English Professor Dr. Philip C. Kolin’s one-act play “Emmett Till Goes Skip-Stopping on the CTA” will be performed Wednesday, Feb. 24 by the Black Theatre Ensemble at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Directed by Dr. Freda Scott Giles, the ensemble will read Kolin’s play at the African American Cultural Center in celebration of Black History Month. Till was the Chicago teenager whose brutal murder in August 1955, while visiting relatives in the Mississippi Delta, ignited the civil rights movement. Kolin’s is the only play about Till that focuses exclusively on the last two weeks of his life on the south side of Chicago.
A native Chicagoan, Kolin’s title refers to the operation of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) elevated trains that would skip alternate stops during rush hours. “The title of my play reflects Till’s urban geography but also the techniques I use to structure the play,” Kolin commented. “I tried to use what is called ‘Magic Realism.’”
While Kolin’s play is situated in major Chicago landscapes—the south side, the Loop, the Chicago River—it also skip-stops history, deconstructing Its chronological order, blurring distinctions between events in Emmett’s life in August 1955 with both later and earlier ones. The play concentrates on Emmett’s thoughts as he talks with his mother and friends, and while he rides the elevated trains in Chicago with all of his boyhood dreams and fears.
“But Emmett does not just live in Chicago in 1955; he also resides in the cultural memory of slavery as well as the 1960s through the 2000s,” Kolin said.
“Skip Stopping” takes audiences into a world of seeming realism until jarring allusions to events and people that come from a time years or even decades after Emmett’s death are heard later in the play. Talking with his friends in 1955, Emmett refers to actions of Black heroes in the 1960s such as Dr. King and also to prominent civil rights legislation from that period. The martyred Till also references films, directors like Spike Lee, and artists such as Beyonce all while preparing for his fateful trip to Mississippi.
Places as well as times collide in Kolin’s play. One of the most haunting uses of his symbolism occurs in the last scene as Emmett sees a train bound for the Chicago Loop with a sign on it urging riders to vote for Obama, while his train leaving for Mississippi carries a sign that reads
“Vote for Wallace.” Mississippi creeps into Chicago’s Till landscapes and into his psyche as Kolin has Emmett’s mother Mamie caution him about Southern customs.
Kolin’s play blends dreams and nightmares to emphasize the tragic events surrounding Till’s murder and those that followed 40 or 50 years later. “I wanted to show the disorderliness of history—how Emmett lives both inside and outside of the 1950s. In a sense, my play indicts history,” Kolin said.
A University Distinguished Professor at Southern Miss, Kolin is the author of more than 40 books, including several on African American playwrights. He is also a renowned expert on the work of Tennessee Williams.
About The University of Southern Mississippi
The University of Southern Mississippi, founded in 1910, is a comprehensive doctoral and research-extensive university fulfilling its mission of being a leading university in engaging and empowering individuals to transform lives and communities. In a tradition of leadership for student development, Southern Miss is educating a 21st century work force providing intellectual capital, cultural enrichment and innovation to Mississippi and the world. Southern Miss is located in Hattiesburg, Miss., with an additional campus and teaching and research sites on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; further information is found at www.usm.edu.