A new production of Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett will be presented this weekend at MetroStage. I talked to Ms. Cohen recently to find out more about her background and why she chose to write this play about Anne Frank and Emmett Till.
Janet Langhart Cohen was at a gathering when a woman questioned her about the subject of her 2005 book, “From Rage To Reason: My Life In Two Americas”. The woman thought the book was about cooking or fashion.
Cohen corrected her; the book was a memoir. The two Americas she referenced were based on her life growing up in America as an African American in a segregated society and now living in the America of promise. The response of the woman, who questioned why Cohen would want to bring that all up again, saying it “was unbecoming of you to be a victim,” was the catalyst for writing what would become Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett.
“It was curious she would say that to me. I didn’t really see myself as playing the victim; I was playing out the reality of our history and writing about it. It would be hard for me as an African American to write my biography without discussing racism,” Cohen says. “I was taken aback by the comment. I realized that she’s white, of European descent, and maybe never had to study my history in class. Maybe she knew nothing about slavery.”
Cohen held her tongue but was livid when she got home and discussed it with her husband.
“She made it seem like my history wasn’t worthy of remembering,” she says. “She can’t allow me to, or has a problem with discussing my history, which is also her history. We didn’t have slaves without having enslavers.”
A broadcast journalist by profession, Cohen is well known throughout the world. She has been a model, is an author, President and CEO of Langhart Communications and the spouse of former Defense Secretary William Cohen.
“Bill saw I was enraged and told me to write something down and I decided to write about Anne Frank and Emmett Till,” she says. “The Jewish people had similar commonalities to the struggles of American racism. I wondered what Anne would say to Emmett.”
While Anne Frank’s story is known universally, the story of Emmett Till is less familiar, but one that Cohen knows all too well.
“I first heard about the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, a year after the Supreme Court ruled that I, as a little colored girl, was equal to anyone white and I could go to any school I wanted. It was the ruling but not the reality,” she says. “I was all excited to go to this integrated school. I was always curious as to why white kids were there and we were here and this would be a great way to learn. Then we heard about 14-year old Emmett Till who was murdered simply for whistling at a white woman. And those who did it were paid $4,000 by a magazine to tell the story. I thought I better not go to an integrated school if they could get away with that and get paid for talking about doing it.”
“Emmett and I were both black and grew up in the same region and were the same age. I also identified with Anne. I was 14 when I learned about her and I started keeping a diary when I learned of hers. The things that she wrote about were things I had written about in my diary. She lived in an attic and was afraid of the Nazis finding her and her family. I lived in a ghetto and feared police patrolling even though I never did anything wrong.”
She recalled the powerful words of the Jewish community: “Never again” and took that mantra to tell the story she wanted to tell.
“Everyone’s history is to be remembered and black people are told to forget it when all other history is recounted,” she says. “I wrote this play for students. I learned of racism as early as 7 years old. My parents had to tell me about it because my life depended on it, much like Emmett Till.”
Debbie Jackson, in her 2011 DCTS review when Anne and Emmett played at Atlas Performing Arts Center:
“Heart breaking as the premise might be, the mystical meeting of two young souls in a realm of memory, ends in hope, not only to remember and never forget the suffering of those who changed the course of history, but in bearing witness, become sojourners of that truth ourselves.”
The play has had an incredible life, working its way from performances at Theater J to Emerson College to George Washington University to stages all over the country. It was to debut at the Holocaust Museum in 2009 when, hours before, a white supremacist entered, opened fire, and killed black security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. Three days later, the play went up, on what would have been Anne Frank’s 80th birthday.
Janet Langhart Cohen’s ANNE AND EMMETT
May 7 – 9
1201 North Royal Street
4 performances only:
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8pm
Saturday matinee at 3pm
Ms. Cohen was planning to tour it this summer, and it was while seeing Bessie’s Blues at MetroStage that Cohen knew the Alexandria, VA theater would be the perfect home to re-stage the play.
“While watching the performance, I thought ‘Thomas W. Jones II [the show’s writer and director] is a genius’ and I imagined what he could do with my play. I knew MetroStage would be the right stage to make it feel up close and personal.”
We asked Carolyn Griffin, Artistic Director of MetroStage, about Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett, which opens May 7th.
“We were so pleased that our introduction of Director Tom Jones has led to this very exciting collaboration.
“When Bill and Janet Langhart Cohen were introduced to me, they had been receiving calls from all over the country inquiring about the play due to the continuing reports of racial violence most often at the hands of the police. It just happened that two plays directed by Tom Jones were on our stage over that time period [Bessie’s Blues and The Island] so I was able to introduce them to his work. In addition, since we have addressed racial issues often on our stage, the topic clearly interested me, and I felt that it was absolutely worth delaying our next production, The Letters, by a week to fit Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett into our schedule. It was an opportunity to let Tom Jones further develop the play in collaboration with the playwright and help launch this latest iteration in anticipation of a national tour.
“For this production, Tom has reimagined the theatrical possibilities and done significant dramaturgical work, our great music director/composer/arranger/accompanist William Knowles has added considerable original musical elements, and accompanies the performances. Our projection designer Robbie Hayes has significantly expanded the projection design elements.”
Atlanta actors Ann Marie Gideon and Enoch King play the roles of Anne Frank and Emmett Till. Rounding out the cast are DC actors Roz White and David Bryan Jackson who play Mamie Till-Mobley and Otto Frank.
Ms. Cohen ended our conversation with “My play is very intimate and touches on subjects people don’t like to talk about—the story of two children living in societies that couldn’t protect them—this continues to be true today with shootings of unarmed black kids, you see anti-Semitism rising in Europe, and it’s still here, too,” she says. “It’s more than a message, it’s a mission and a call to action.”
Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett by Janet Langhart Cohen . Directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Original music by Joshua Coyne and William Knowles . Featuring Ann Marie Gideon, Enoch King, Roz White and David Bryan Jackson . Pianist: William Knowles . Projections Design: Robbie Hayes . Produced by RARIA (Race And Reconciliation In America) and MetroStage.