By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Oct 26, 2015 at 9:03 AM

Emmett Till is a name that stands along with Rosa Parks in the long and turbulent history of the fight for civil rights in this country.

And the 14-year-old boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 comes magnificently alive in "The Ballad of Emmett Till," which opened over the weekend at Renaissance Theaterworks.

The excitement in this production, directed by Marti Gobel, comes from the surprising and breakout performance by Marques Causey as the young boy who was killed exactly 100 days before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus.

Causey leads an ensemble of black actors who bring this lurid and challenging tale to life and create a focus that is stirring. The joys of Till’s life stand out in stark contrast to the horror of his beating death.

Till was murdered by white men after he had allegedly spoken with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, who operated a small grocery story and sold him some bubblegum. Several nights after that moment, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother grabbed Till, took him to barn, beat him severely, shot him through the head and tossed his body in a river. They were acquitted at trial.

There are inherent dangers in producing a play about a figure who is an integral and important part of our recent history. Two years ago, the Milwaukee Rep staged the play "The Mountaintop," about Martin Luther King’s final night in a Memphis hotel room. The problem with that production was that telling us about the holes in his socks didn’t actually do anything for the story of this man who was a legend.

Gobel avoids any minimizing of Till’s story by focusing on the young man himself. Fourteen years old in Chicago, having a mild stutter due to an early bout of polio, Till is portrayed as a young man who loves just about everything – his life, his family, the girls. It’s all right there for Emmett Till to take, and he doesn’t mind telling you about where he’s headed. And where he’s headed is to Mississippi for a summer visit with family. He is as excited for the visit as only a 14-year-old boy could be.

Causey has everything about this kid down pat. He’s got the occasional stutter, that is relieved by a slow whistle and a slide dance step. He’s got the boyish lust for life, and Gobel has structured this so that our falling in love with Emmett makes his murder all that much more horrible.

The rest of this cast plays multiple roles – mothers and aunts, girlfriends and best friends, uncles and, perhaps most frighteningly of all, white killers. James Carrington sends chills throughout the audience as the killer.

The story of Emmett Till is a moving one, and this production is particularly so. There is a humanity to it that Gobel allows to flow without any interference from stuff that doesn’t matter. The aura of warmth that surrounds this young man is striking.

The play moves smoothly toward what we all know is coming, the end of this young boy’s life. That gruesome memory kicks off the only quibble I have with the play.

The first hour of this production just sails along, but eventually playwright Ifa Bayeza just seems to intent on hammering her message home. This was not a message that needed to be hammered. Everyone knows the story, and we all know our history.

At the end, there were several points where I was sure the end was at hand, and yet it continued to move in, becoming ever more preachy. Over and over, we got the message that this death was unjust, that this event was a catalyst in the fight for freedom.

On one hand, I wish this play had gone on forever, with even more about this boy and his wonderful family. On the other, I wish it had ended without any preaching.

"The Ballad of Emmett Till" runs through Nov. 15 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.