Monday, October 31, 2011

Anne & Emmett Sparks Dialogue on History, Race and Hope

Anne & Emmett, the critically acclaimed one-act play to show at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC

Janet Langhart Cohen was 14 years old when she first learned about Anne Frank and Emmett Till, whom she calls martyrs of the Holocaust and apartheid America. It would be years later at a luncheon, that a conversation with a white friend about her memoir, From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas sparked an idea. Although Cohen had achieved success as an Emmy-nominated journalist, author and playwright, the friend inquired why she would write about her experiences growing up in "apartheid America," and that she shouldn't play the victim. She asked her husband, former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, who is half Jewish,"I wonder what Anne Frank would have thought? Was my history worthy of discussion? What would have Anne Frank said to Emmett Till about it?" Her husband told her she should write about it.

The result of this dialogue is Anne & Emmett, a critically acclaimed one act play that unites the two youth in a beyond the grave scenario, where their imaginary conversations draw startling similarities of their harrowing experiences and the atrocities against their respective race. (Pictured in the photo is the play's director, Talvin Wilks with Janet Langhart Cohen.)

In the theatrical piece, Anne recounts hiding in a cramped attic with her family after German dictator Adolf Hitler ordered the Nazi military to round up Jews and put them in concentration camps en route to gas chambers. Emmett tells Anne about how he, in 1955, ended up being brutally attacked by a group of racists and thrown in the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan tied to his neck. This happened after Till, from Chicago, Illinois, allegedly whistled at a white woman while visiting his uncle in Money, Mississippi. Cohen shared, “It is my deepest hope that this play will not just encourage dialogue but inspire each of us to take positive actions to ensure a more tolerant world.”

The play also honors Cohen's mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she traveled with for two years. In her early 20s, Cohen moved to Chicago and began modeling, where she stayed as a houseguest of renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It was at Jackson’s home that she met King just hours after he had been struck in the head with a brick during a march. Cohen recalls that day with BlackGivesBack and their conversation, telling King that she wanted to get back at those who had hurt him. She asked why he didn't fight back and his response was, "It's not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do. We have to love them into decency."

Cohen was with Martin Luther King as he spoke many of his famous words that are now etched on the walls surrounding his memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. She shares of her friend and mentor, "Here is a black man, who didn't serve the country in uniform, nor did he serve in public office, but he moved this country in giant steps into humanity simply by being righteous and non violent."

Anne & Emmett will appear at the historic Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington, DC from November 3-6. For more information on this insightful and thought provoking play, visit the website at and to purchase tickets, visit

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