It’s a question loaded with pain, but Emmett speaks it quietly, like a person so soul-weary that he’s partially numb.
“Do you know how many come after me?” he asks.
Emmett is Emmett Till, the Black boy barbarically murdered by a pair of white Southern thugs the summer he was 14, down from Chicago to visit family in small-town Mississippi.
“Do you know how many come after me?” he asks again.
In Nataki Garrett and Andrea LeBlanc’s wound-lancing theater piece “The Carolyn Bryant Project,” repetition is a means of outlining an ugly pattern — unfounded white aggression, needless Black death, the public tarnishing of the victim. And often, as in Emmett’s case, no punishment whatsoever for the killers.
These many murders are what he means when he asks that question of his own accuser. Trapped in a corner of our collective psychic landscape, he has her for eternal company: Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was 21 in August 1955, when Emmett walked into the store that she and her husband owned, and proceeded to buy some bubble gum.
Did the handsome kid flirt with her during their very brief encounter? Possibly. Did he lay his hands on her in the store and utter sexual vulgarities? No, though it was more than 50 years before she recanted that smear from her testimony.
Claiming a foggy recollection about what exactly did transpire before her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped, tortured and killed Emmett Till, the real Carolyn Bryant eventually conceded to a historian: “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”
That line echoes through “The Carolyn Bryant Project,” directed by Garrett and filmed in 2018 during its premiere at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in Los Angeles. Streaming for free on the CalArts Center for New Performance website, this is a meditation on memory, silence and the potent, poisonous myth of fragile white womanhood — in particular, the Southern belle as damsel in distress.
Stuck in a narrative loop, bound to each other, Emmett (Jacob Romero Gibson) and Carolyn (LeBlanc) re-enact the events of their meeting as alleged in her testimony. She always calls Emmett a man, to make him sound more frightening, and modifies that word with a racial slur.
Emmett himself, actually, thinks he’s very grown up; who doesn’t at 14? But the people he talks about most are his mother and grandmother.
“My granny said, ‘Stay away from white girls! They’ll get you killed,’” he says, and laughs.
“Smart lady,” Carolyn replies.
This is a powerful show, and the video makes you want to see it live — not only to get closer to it but also to appreciate more fully its handsome design, especially the video projections by Edgar Arceneaux. One caution: The performance does include a brutally explicit description of what Emmett’s murderers did to him.
Garrett and LeBlanc are more concerned with the fatal toxins coursing through our culture than with the real Carolyn Bryant’s immediate motive for lying. This is not a piece about understanding her, and it’s certainly not an absolution. What she said incited the murder of a child in the Jim Crow south.
But the ritual we watch Emmett and Carolyn repeat is emblematic of an American cycle that shows no sign of stopping.
“I was just scared to death,” she claims, brandishing a gun as she recalls the night they met.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
The Carolyn Bryant Project
Streaming online through Oct. 22; centerfornewperformance.org.