Spectrum Dance Theater Revisits Donald Byrd’s Grief–Last Performance Tonight!

Donald Byrd’s operatic and vividly embodied dance/theater piece Grief imagines a moment just before Emmett ‘Till’s funeral, the 14-year-old Black boy who was horrifically abducted and murdered in 1955. Painfully embodying the unendurable grief of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, the work centers around the powerful and unusual way she chose, or perhaps, needed, to endure it. As a reflection on the Black community’s pain and resilience, Grief shifts its focus away from dance as entertainment or catharsis and emphasizes the transformative civic possibilities within the theatrical space.

At once intellectually conceptual and surreally embodied, Robertson Witmer’s sound design is often as stripped bare as the echoic of a beating heart, and Ryan A. Dunn’s lighting, along with Jack Mehler’s scene design, shifts the scenes seamless from a normal external perspective on the pre-funeral events to the sensation of experiencing the performance from inside Till-Mobley’s own heart, eyeless, earless, bodiless, the ensemble dancers moving like the electrical impulses in muscle cells, and the audience sitting in rows like a rib’s cradle.  

Saying, “I want the world to see what they did to my baby,” Till-Mobley had an open casket funeral for Emmett and allowed his body—which was found in the Tallahatchie river, his neck tied with barbed wire around a cotton gin fan—to appear on the cover of Jet Magazine, awakening a generation of American households with the real brutality and antiblack violence brought about by failed Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Through that publicity and outpouring of community pain, Mamie Till-Mobley’s anguish galvanized the US Civil Rights Movement.  

The work is both theater and dance, with actor/vocalist Josephine Howell as Mamie Till-Mobley (she is so phenomenal it is hard to describe, by the way) and Spectrum Dance Theater company dancers in black dresses and suits, as mourners, community, and funeral attendees, but more metaphysically, they are conduits for a level of emotion in Till-Mobley that has expressed itself to its limit in her body, and needs more: needs not one heart but thousands of them to hold both the immediate pain and traumatizing implications of what happened to Emmett—and countless other black boys, not just in Jim Crow but to this day. 

In this sense, the dancers begin to unfold and operate a mechanics of grief, looping themselves into repetitive choreography that permutates and evokes the repetitiveness of the emotion that is not enough to undo what has happened, as well as the knowing that there could be no preventing of what happened to Emmett: it wasn’t random, it was targeted. After weeks in jail, his killers were tried for all of 67 minutes and acquitted, then later admitted it all in Time magazine.  

The fragmentary action of trauma and the psychosomatic agonies of grief of this kind is impossible not to understand through Howell-as-Till-Mobley’s stuttering, crying, and singing as she speaks using the text of the FBI report, telling the story of what happened with measured and factual syntax that starkly contrasts the mother who is recounting it, who can do nothing but. Because Emmett Till was dehumanized in the eyes of his killers the second he stepped into that convenience store, Grief frames their violence from the perspective of Till-Mobley: it was an erasure of the fact of her baby, and all she can carry now are the facts of his death. She stands in the first scene, delivering the first lines of the FBI report as she folds his clothes, and every dancer on stage sits or stands, frozen completely still.  

The cast is frequently split into couples that perform pas de deuxs exampling the helplessness of their feeling and the need for support. The partnerships see the dancers constantly collapsing into each other with arched backs reminiscent of the Pietà, a parallel Donald Byrd wrote about in his introduction to the piece, in which he was thinking about “the iconography…[of] Mary holding the dead body of Jesus across her lap” as functioning similarly as the images of Emmett Till in his open casket on the cover of Jet Magazine. Byrd writes, “It is because of what [Till-Mobley] imagines, not just his death, I think, that makes her pain unbearable, what outrages her. She wants us to see through her eyes and feel through her nerves the dehumanization of her son, how he was diminished and disregarded.” 

Grief is a difficult piece; it asks you to give it something, emotionally, that is hard to give. Even as I wanted to give it, the level of empathy it wants from its audience is not naturally easy, due to its intensity. But in its demand that you support its weight as it leans into you lays the only way it ultimately leaves its audience with something that, unlike the absence of loss, can be kept. Through an understanding of loss and emotion as universal, but Mamie Till-Mobley’s grief as the result of racial slavery, Grief asks you to surrender in imagining what it means for dehumanization and death like Emmett’s to transpire: it means a mother’s grief so large it still needs to be felt almost a century later. 

Grief originally premiered in 2022 as the second part of the Insidious Trilogy, three historical reimaginations and recontextualizations of Jim Crow America, with Strange Fruit In 2019 and Targeted in 2023. 

If you saw it in 2022, it’s worth going again: SDT is preserving the material of the piece but has also reorganized it structurally, with a new cast. 

There is one more performance tonight at 7:30 pm at Seattle Repertory Theater. 

Tickets: https://tickets.seattlerep.org/booking/production/bestavailable/10219 

Transportation: Seattle Repertory Theater is located in the heart of Seattle Center, best accessed via the Monorail and Light Rail.


“It is not that I dwell on the past. But the past shapes the way we are in the present and the way we will become what we are destined to become. It is only because I have finally understood the past, accepted it, embraced it, that I can fully live in the moment. And hardly a moment goes by when I don’t think about Emmett and the lessons a son can teach a mother.” – Mamie Till-Mobley

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