Book, Music and Lyrics: Gregory James Tornquist
Mississippi is a mixed-race, song and dance musical set in the small town of Hope River, Mississippi in 1959. This is the Jim Crow era when legalized segregation was brutally enforced. Mississippi is tragically timely with the racism and sexual misconduct that were woven into the fabric of daily life in 1959 headlining so many news feeds today. If this Southern Gothic story was fact, not fiction, it would have been front page everywhere. With the advent of television in the 1950s, the Cotton Curtain, that had always hid evil, was being torn asunder, exposing the darkness on the nightly news. The social order changing was on both races’ minds. One righteous person changing might only light a candle. But the hope of Hope River was if a community like theirs could change, in Mississippi, it might help light up the whole world.
The 8 members Cast sing “Mississippi ” dealing with the duality of racial perspectives. Then the stage is left to Kitten, a white 18 years old girl, who singsongs her desire to leave Mississippi with her imaginary friend Buttons. In Scene 2 Kitten narrowly escapes the sexual abuse of her KKK father, Mr. Frank.
In the next few scenes we meet Gussy, Deacon’s cook and widowed mother of a son who was lynched and Reverend Davis, beloved pastor of Hope River Community Church who is planning a voting rights meeting with NAACP Mississippi Field Secretary, Medgar Evers. We meet Moses, an uncommonly generous musician, juke joint owner, moonshiner and lover of the young widow Justine, Deacon’s maid. Toby, the privileged, alcoholic Ole Miss student, son of Klansman Deacon, the wealthiest man in the county, tries to convince Hattie, Justine’s younger sister, to run off to Chicago with him. When she refuses, Toby threatens her.
Justine tells Hattie she’s late and not sure if the baby is white or black.
Rather than have a necessary abortion, since they both realize Deacon, who forces himself on her, would kill her regardless of the baby’s race, Hattie jokingly suggests getting rid of Deacon instead. Shooting him.
Kitten has a dream and believes an angel has given her a message to share. She decides to help the black community at the church by being their spy and telling them if she learns something about any Klan plan. The first act concludes with the uplifting “Mississippi Mercy Me” as Reverend Davis and the church decide if they even want Kitten’s help.
Scene 1 is Gussy confessing to Reverend Davis that she’s struggling with feeling stuck in the past, still trying to forgive those responsible for the 1934 lynching of her 14 years old son. Gussy sings her sad lament “Trouble Everywhere”. Kitten goes by Toby’s home, and after singing “You Look A Lot Like Me”, but failing to seduce Toby, inquires about the money she needs to leave Hope River. Selfish Toby refuses to help his friend.
Hattie meets Moses at his juke and he proposes matrimony. They go inside and a very drunk Toby, who has been stalking Hattie, sneaks in and murders Hattie with his switchblade knife. Moses throws him out and cradles Hattie in his arms. Toby runs into Kitten who heard the juke horror and threatens that she’ll be next to die if she testifies.
After finding Toby’s bloody clothes, Justine confides to Reverend Davis that she knows Toby killed Hattie. They question why the jailed Moses will not speak to anyone. Moses has decided he has no choice but to be found guilty despite his innocence. Hattie was murdered in his place. No white boy was ever found guilty of murdering a black girl in Mississippi. Moses and the Cast deal with the murder, injustice and loss of faith in the song “Just So You Know”.
Justine steals Deacon’s revolver intent on shooting Toby. She doesn’t find Toby but kills Deacon and Mr. Frank in Deacon’s home. A visibly shaken Justine hurries off and runs into Kitten. After Kitten tells Justine she was there when Hattie was murdered, Justine allows Kitten to go with her to the church. Justine needs to confess to Reverend Davis and Kitten and Kitten wants to tell them that Toby is the murderer. Kitten begins to tell the church when Toby enters, knowing nothing of Justine’s acts. Unseen by the Cast, Mr. Frank’s and Hattie’s ghosts enter.
After Kitten and Justine both honestly testify, Justine pulls the pistol from her purse and points it at Toby who pleads for his life. Moses enters! He has broken out of jail. Moses takes the gun from Justine and they decide to escape together. Gussy gives them an astonishing amount of money and Reverend Davis prays a quick blessing over them.
The Cast sing “Hope River” as they process what’s happened and reflect on their lives and town. Reverend Davis shares the hope of organizing and overcoming the dark days. Toby protests but Reverend Davis and most of the Cast sing “We Shall Overcome” and then, the entire Cast sing “Mississippi Mercy Me Reprise”.