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Award-Winning Novelist’s First Play Premieres In Albany

January 12, 1986 GMT

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ ″Dreaming Emmett″ awoke in Toni Morrison’s imagination in an airport waiting room, where her novelist’s eye focused on a black youth clearly brimming with enthusiasm at the thought of an impending voyage.

As he strode across the room to join a group of friends, the boy cut a swath of excitement through the sedentary rows of travel-weary passengers.

″There was such life and joy, and something very attractive about him and that group,″ recalled Morrison.

But as she watched him, her thoughts turned to the violence that can intrude upon the lives of so many youths before they reach manhood.

″I couldn’t help thinking, what if he were stopped - right at that age,″ she said. ″What do you lose when a 14-year-old is killed? A ‘teen-ager’? We say that like it’s a disease. A short adult?″

A 14-year-old is killed in ″Dreaming Emmett,″ the first play by the internationally acclaimed author of the novels ″The Bluest Eye,″ ″Sula,″ ″Tar Baby″ and ″Song of Solomon,″ the latter of which earned her the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.

The play premiered Saturday at the Capital Repertory Company’s Market Theater in Albany. It hasn’t been reviewed by New York drama critics. However, Bob Goepfert of the Albany Knickerbocker-News said:

″The first act is a highly stylized segment that is visually intriguing but too loaded with information to be dramatically satisfying. The second act is a compelling piece of theater that burns with passion.

″The virtues of the latter make up for the flaws of the former. Combined with Morrison’s ability to create beautiful language throughout, the total event becomes a thoughtful experience.″

The play involves the death of Emmett Till, a black youth from Chicago who was brutally beaten and shot to death 30 years ago during a visit to Mississippi, apparently because he whistled at a white woman.

In a case that made headlines around the world, the two white men accused in the murder were acquitted by an all-male, all-white jury.

Morrison did not venture into playwrighting in order to put a 14-year-old to death. Rather, she wrote ″Dreaming Emmett″ to bring that boy, his era and ours to life with a power and intimacy that can only be created on the stage.

″There’s something so immediate, so skin-close in theater,″ Morrison said in an interview. ″I want the audience to feel the excitement of being the characters. I want them to experience the play, think about it and make it part of their lives.″

Literary critics have applauded Morrison’s ability to draw readers into her novels with powerful webs of description. When she wrote ″Dreaming Emmett,″ she sacrificed description and staked success on dialogue.

She did not take the risk unaided, however. The task of creating theatrical images to fill out the verbal framework of ″Dreaming Emmett″ was accepted by director Gilbert Moses, who received a Tony nomination for ″Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,″ and an Emmy nomination for directing two segments of ″Roots.″

″There were passages of dialogue which Toni purposefuly made vague,″ said Moses. ″The metaphor for the idea was present, but the action that would specify the meaning was left up to my imagination and the imagination of the actors.″

Moses and Morrison, who met several years ago, had often discussed the possiblity of collaborating on a play. But it wasn’t until September 1984 that ″Dreaming Emmett″ became a working project.

″That’s when the Writers Institute came along,″ Morrison said.

The New York State Writers Institute, headed by Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy, is associated with the State University at Albany, where Morrison is a professor of humanities. The Institute commissioned ″Dreaming Emmett″ to commemorate the first federal holiday celebrating the birthday of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

Moses agreed to direct it, even though Morrison was a novice playwright.

″I trust her implicitly,″ he said. ″She obviously has a unique voice in literature. The play is the result of her ability to find a unique voice in theater.″

The uniqueness that attracted Moses to the play can be found in the idea that forms its very structure - a dream within a dream.

″A kid who died unsatisfied with the kind of death he had comes back to claim a sort of notoriety in death,″ said Gilbert.

As he strives to overcome the anonymity of his death, Emmett collides with a young woman from the present who is suffering from her own kind of anonymity.

Political and personal themes are intertwined in ″Dreaming Emmett.″