Talking with Janet Langhart Cohen is like stepping back in time and talking to a time traveler –she’s been everywhere and knows everybody. A broadcast journalist and President and CEO of Langhart Communications, Cohen is well known throughout the world. At the same time, she lives and feels life from the inside out and palpably feels injustice within the depths of her soul. It was natural that she was drawn to the near parallel stories of Emmett Till and Anne Frank.
When Cohen started imagining a surreal interaction between these two historical figures, she was struck by their similarities and how they were both tragically murdered at such young ages by systemic hatred. The more she researched, their stories kept wrapping around in her head like a double helix, until they sprang forth in a two-person dialog. In the first reading, she felt the spirits of their parents nearby so strongly that she could barely keep her concentration and focus on the stage. As she watched, she could almost hear Otto Frank and Mamie Till-Mobley asking— no, demanding to be heard, for their sensibilities and sacrifices to be acknowledged and recognized. As a result there are four characters relaying the lives and connections between them all.
“Emmett Till is our Anne Frank,” she says. “Keeping him in our thoughts keeps his memory alive.” In fact his brutal murder as a 14-year old visiting relatives in Mississippi with no reprisal for the killers who were paid thousands to tell the story, helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. Just this year, even LeBron James referenced Emmett Till when referring to the racial incident of slurring vandalism against him. “Emmett Till is our marker,” says Cohen.
Keith Loria’s interview with Cohen described the early workings of the play including the planned debut at the Holocaust Museum in 2009 where a white supremacist opened fire and killed black security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns. Three days later the play opened on what would have been Anne Frank’s 80th birthday.
Since then, the blatant racism of the Charleston massacre June 2015 and the increasingly visible numbers of hate crimes since the presidential election have made seeing the production even more urgent. Last year, the New York City Police Commissioner joined by Mayor Bill DeBlasio invited the cast to perform for new recruits.
Anne & Emmett
closes July 30, 2017
Details and tickets
Cohen reminds us that “…we’re in a life and death situation. The current disregard for whole segments of communities didn’t come from nowhere. It’s always been there, just tucked away from view by most. Now it’s just more blatant, accepted, honored.”
She reminds us of the conditions that resulted in the tragedies of Anne and Emmett started with acceptance of injustice to groups of people. The slippery slope of accepting intolerance is deeply rooted in racism, self-preservation and fear, very much today’s current conditions stoked by day to day anxiety. “What happened to them (Anne and Emmett) was normalized,” she says. Today, travel bans and mass deportations are tearing families apart and entire swatches of Americans are losing a sense of care and compassion.
Anne Frank and Emmett Till were both victims of a deliberate social construct of racism. In a fascinating historical observation, Cohen noted a connection between pervasive Jim Crow tactics and Nazism — Hitler apparently considered the elements of the Jim Crow South as he was devising the extermination of Jews, but decided that the systemic pervasive elements were “too harsh.”
Cohen reminds us that Anne and Emmett were children destroyed by unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty in “civilized societies.” At the same time, man’s inhumanity to man is as old as time. Is there no other way of being? Will the legacy of hate and violence continue to divide us? When I asked her point blank if hate is an integral part of the human heart, she reluctantly responded Yes– but so is love. Care and tenderness are felt throughout the script, along with poignant passages of humor as these two young souls share and learn about each other.
The pattern throughout history is crystal clear– hate will always be with us. “Civilized people just figure out how to manage it with open eyes to see it. Then do something about it.” Here’s where laws, enforcement and consequences come into play, she explains. Our history IS American history, and should be valued.
She suggests “listen to the deepest part of yourself… There’s so much noise and needless distraction out there—soul crushing to our own innate humanity. We should see ourselves in each other instead of seeing as the other.”
Janet Langhart Cohen’s Anne & Emmett is a treasured opportunity to listen to and witness an extraordinary imaginary interaction, and to appreciate our own souls’ capacity to care in the process. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II and with original music by William Knowles, the show is sure to leave an endearing impression on all to see.
After a limited run at MetroStage, it will be featured at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with more productions to come including a showing in Amsterdam in collaboration with Chicago’s DuSable Museum.
The show is a “tikkun olam,” – a call to action to repair the world, to Never Forget. And for all kinds of reasons, it’s needed now more than ever.
Anne & Emmett by Janet Langhart Cohen . Directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Musical Direction by William Knowles . Cast: Abigail Williams; Enoch King; Roger Grunwald; Roz White . Presented by MetroStage