Created and handsomely rendered with boundless love, heart and soul, the short-run Metro Stage/Race and Reconciliation in America (RARIA) production of Anne & Emmett was a production of grace and enlightenment. Its poignancy in the face of the theme of the crushing-out of the young lives of Anne Frank and Emmett Till held me in rapt attention, as it grew in urgency and emotional wallop.
Anne & Emmett had an essence, that in this particular theatrical production, leaped off the page and stage with vigor and truth. After all, as the Anne Frank character said, “words have meaning.”
The Metro Stage/RARIA production was true to playwright Janet Langhart Cohen’s vision to help “understand and articulate the need to find tolerance and harmony in the world rather than hate.” In her personal journey, the playwright “turned to an imaginary vision of two historic and tragic victims of institutionalized terrorism, Anne Frank and Emmett Till.”
Under the reverent, respectful directorial touch of Thomas W. Jones II, Anne & Emmett is a forceful work of art. His style and staging also helped to give the two young main characters some teen spirit and youthful dimensions. They were not just iconic, historic figures.
The 90-minute, one-act play begins with Morgan Freeman’s deep resonate baritone voice setting the stage. Yes, it was a voice of God. We find the two teenagers, Anne Frank (1929-1945) and Emmett Till (1941-1955) meeting in a place called Memory. It is place they go to after death when someone sings of them. They begin to speak of themselves as others have described them: she, a chatterbox; he a jokester. Soon enough, the purpose of their existence in Memory becomes clear.
In this place called Memory, each chronicled for the other how they met their ultimate fate. Anne Frank (Ann Marie Gideon in a nuanced, probing performance) recounts the rise to power of the Nazis during her years hiding with her family until they are found and taken away to concentration camps. Emmett Till (Enoch King giving off tremendous energy and life) describes how while visiting his uncle in Mississippi he is brutally murdered by racists and thrown into the Tallahatchie River for whistling at a white woman.
It is an unlikely encounter that drew me into its emotional and intellectual embrace, as Anne & Emmett began to demonstrate the disquieting similarities between the discrimination, violence and carnage the two teens and those they represented suffered.
Along the way of their storytelling the two teens also discussed their upbringings within their families. Their parents appear often throughout the production: Roz White as Mamie Till-Mobley and David Bryan Jackson as Otto Frank. They are both impressive, each in her or his own way, as loving parental figures explaining the rules of survival to their disbelieving children. Jackson argues Job-like with God regarding the “why” for the Holocaust with the shout “God, Where Are You?” which makes us a witness to a one-sided Biblical debate. White’s deeply felt slow cadenced recitation of, what I heard, “Oh, What Sorrow, Oh, What Pity, Oh What Pain” (from Langston Hughes) and her velvet, life-lived voice singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was a witnessing that brought shivers to me.
Anne & Emmitt built into harrowing proportions because of the acting prowess of its four member cast. As the show progressed there was not only a collective hush in the audience, but a leaning forward into the production’s growing tension. This happened even though we, the audience, knew the ultimate ending of the two young victims of hate, intolerance and fear: brutalization, dehumanization, and murder.
The technical design team deserves abundant credit. The original and evocative music by Joshua Coyne and William Knowles underscored the dialogue and each of characters personal style. William Knowles was the music director. Robbie Hayes produced a set and projection design that gave copious visual cues to the audience; not with shouts of “look at me” but more whispers of sorrowful events. He had gathered together and projected images that floated into view, at the rear of a sparse set, onto wide roughly hewn irregular thick pine planks.
With Veronica J. Lancaster’s sound design, the snippets of the song “Strange Fruit” met up with the infamous photo of the lynching of three young black men in Marion, on August 7, 1930. John D. Alexander’s lighting design made the color crimson a gasp of fear and death while Jane Fink’s costume design placed the show in its time and place. One note, in King’s hands, a hat became a living breathing entity.
And this key note as well. The play did not shy away from some issues that remain sharp and current, for “it is never too late for justice” as Anne and Emmett made me aware. One example was the interaction between Anne and Emmett over the issue of monetary reparations for past evils committed by others upon them. Another one was who should remember what, what should be forgotten over time and who as permission to define justice.
As it concluded, the poignancy of Anne & Emmett washed over and enveloped me as a work of engaging refinement and mercy. I surrendered into it and its message that “it is never too late for justice” as we work together to try to help repair American and the world. In these days of increasing fragmentation of American society, I can only hope that Anne and Emmett reaches a wide range of audiences throughout America.
Anne & Emmett played May 7-9, 2015 at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA.
For more information about Race and Reconciliation in America click here.
Note: An interactive post-show talk-back with playwright Janet Langhard Cohen joined by her husband Secretary William S. Cohen producer of Anne & Emmett added powerfully to the production’s impact.
Anne & Emmett website.