While actor and documentary filmmaker donnie l. betts was an original member of the DCPA Theatre Company, City Stage Ensemble and the Denver Black Arts Company, and appeared on Broadway in The Gospel at Colonus, he says radio drama is his favorite format.
“It lets you use your imagination,” betts says. “You can visualize what you want to visualize, and that's always fascinated me.”
More than two decades ago, he got the rights to scripts written by Radio Hall of Fame member Richard Durham for Destination Freedom, the radio drama that was originally produced in Chicago between 1948 and 1950. Using the moniker Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days, betts updated original scripts to make them more contemporary, while he and other writers penned scripts to perform at various venues around Denver. Two years ago, betts started producing Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days in podcast form.
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Last year, betts reached out to the family of Emmitt Till, the fourteen-year-old Black boy who was tortured and killed in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 in a racially motivated hate crime that ultimately helped launch the Civil Rights movement. He asked them about creating a script based on Till for Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days. After getting the green light from Till’s family, betts wrote A Letter From Heaven to America From Emmett Till, which will be performed live at Dazzle and live-streamed on Friday, August 28, the 65th anniversary of Till’s death.
“Emmett never had a chance to tell his story himself because he was killed,” betts says. “So now you have witnesses to tell the truth as they knew it. Some kind of embellish it to make themselves look better, and the true killers never really said anything. They confessed to the killing, but they never really said what happened.”’
A Letter From Heaven to America From Emmett Till is written from the perspective of Till, who will be portrayed by fourteen-year-old actor Owen Zitek, and explores how Till would address the United States from Heaven.
“He’s looking down from Heaven these past 65 years,” betts says. “What’s been happening in America that's even different from the time that he was killed? And so he’s calling on America to change, but he's also telling America, ‘This is what you've been doing. And we've been watching you. I've been watching you. MLK has been watching you. [Black civil-rights and human-rights activist] Ella Baker has been watching you. All these other people who've been watching you are looking for you to change.' This is what I’m saying. This is what Emmett is saying in his letter.”
Following the performance of A Letter From Heaven to America From Emmett Till, there will be a concert honoring Elijah McClain, who died last August after Aurora police officers restrained him in a chokehold.
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The concert, which will be 23 minutes long (a minute for every year McClain lived), will include string players, like McClain, including Monique Brooks Roberts and Lionel Young, Andrew Jacob Betts, Onxy Oats, Jeff Hughes, Annastezhaa Mitchell-Curtis and Kari Clifton. Funds raised from the concert will go directly to the McClain family, and donations can also be made here.
While more than six decades separate the deaths of Till and McClain, betts says that there are many parallels between the two.
“Both of them were young, innocent and happy,” betts says. “Physically, they were very small and were attacked by grown men and tortured. And their deaths sparked a series of protest movements, call for justice — not only for them, but for a lot of other people, too. This current movement was sparked by the death of George Floyd, but if you look at the groundswell of activities for Elijah McClain, it’s unparalleled.”
Destination Freedom: Black Radio Days takes place at 7 p.m. Friday, August 28, at Dazzle, at 1512 Curtis Street. Seating will be limited to 50 people and masks will be required. Tickets are $20 and available at the Dazzle website. The event will be live-streamed (with a $10 suggested donation) via Dazzle’s YouTube and Facebook pages as well as at No Credits Productions LLC.