Last night I saw one of the plays in my much-appreciated subscription series to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. The play, The Ballad of Emmett Till, is based on a tragic event that took place in Mississippi in the summer of l955. A young Chicago boy, 14-year-old Emmett Till, was visiting relatives down south. For the crime of allegedly making an improper advance to a young white female store clerk, Emmett was tortured and beaten to death. His body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. The only way his mother could recognize his remains was by a ring engraved with the initials of Emmett’s father. This horrific event echoes through our history, reminding us of the terrible injustice that raged through our land just before the enormous struggle for civil rights erupted in the l960’s.
I was looking forward to experiencing this night in the theatre. And I am sorry to say that my friends and I were deeply disappointed. We wondered how such an incredibly powerful story could end up feeling so flat and fail to engage the audience. The acting and directing, and most certainly the stunning design, were not the problem. I believe the “miss” was all in the writing - which felt predictable, overdone, and lacked vitality.
Later I thought about how Christian artists and teachers possess the most incredible story to tell in the universe. And yet sometimes in the telling, we miss as well. Our words and music and images rarely capture the wonder of the gospel, the glory of creation, the miracle of grace, the sovereign power of our Holy God. So much rests in the writing – in the craft of the words we choose, the images we portray, the music we compose, the dances we choreograph. I for one long to break out of the same old way of telling such a marvelous story. My experience in theatre last night inspired me not because of greatness, but because I felt so empty at the end. I don’t want people coming to church to leave feeling flat, disengaged, uninspired. Certainly the Holy Spirit and his anointing power plays an enormous part. But so do we, the humans who prepare and design and write and communicate. May we increasingly do our part with innovation, vitality, and fresh words for timeless truths.