Anne and Emmett, by Janet Langhart Cohen, is a play about an imagined conversation between two figures from history – teenagers, who were the victims of institutional terrorism. MetroStage produced this profoundly important work for a limited run this past weekend.
The discussion takes places between Anne Frank, a Jewish girl killed in 1945 during the Holocaust, and Emmett Till, a young black man, from Chicago, murdered while visiting family in Mississippi in 1955. They meet in a place called Memory, where they share their experiences with bigotry and injustice, highlighting the striking similarities between their horrific deaths.
Anne is known to most. Her diary, which she wrote during WWII, is required reading in many schools. But Emmett’s tragic story is lesser known. In August of 1955, he was abducted from his uncle’s home and lynched. His body was dumped in the river. Through analyzing these two events, Cohen’s play forces the audience to recognize the prejudice and hate that still exists today and how dangerously close our society is to repeating history.
The stage was mostly bare, with a pair of benches and chairs, and an upstage wall made of slats of wood, calling to mind the attic space where Anne Frank and her family hid from 1942 to 1944. Robbie Hayes designed the set, as well as the projections that showed throughout the production. Images of newspaper clippings, mass graves, and the disfigured body of Emmett Till were projected onto the upstage wall. Heartrending but necessary, the pictures serve as reminders of the real and true history of the story being told onstage.
Joshua Coyne and William Knowles created the original music for Anne and Emmett, with William Knowles as Music Director for the production.
The cast was composed of four actors. Abigail Williams is Anne, capturing her intelligence, youth, and compassion. And Enoch King plays Emmett, an energetic kid, who loved playing the jokester. King and Williams work beautifully together, exuding the honest and care-free naiveté of adolescence, which works to accentuate the heavy contrast to their knowledge of the evils in the world.
Mamie Till, played by Roz White, is Emmett’s mother. After seeing her son’s body, Mamie insisted on having an open casket funeral to ensure that everyone could witness the horror of his murder. The fortitude and courage necessary for a person to grieve the loss of a child so publicly is unimaginable, and yet White embodies this character, conveying the pain, fury, and heart-ache that Mamie endured.
Roger Grunwald plays Otto Frank, Anne’s beloved father. The relationship between Williams and Grunwald is sincere and sweet. Otto was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust, losing his wife and two daughters. Grunwald articulates Otto’s anguish with not only his expression and voice, but with his body. He is often seen holding Anne’s diary, protectively pressing the book to his chest.
These touches show the brilliance in direction by Thomas W. Jones II. Not everything was as subtle as Grunwald’s physicality, though. There was an incredible range of movement as Anne and Emmett’s conversation passes from recollection, to flashbacks, to current time, and back again, constantly. Mamie and Otto float onto the stage and into scenes, only to then smoothly weave their way out, without any break in the rhythm of the show. And in one of the most captivating moments of the show (of which there were many), King acts out Emmett’s attack: his eyes are gouged out, he is severely beaten, and then shot in the head. King is incredible in this moment. There is no blood and his attackers are imagined, but King’s commitment brings the action to life and yet again exposes the audience to the brutality that can be, and has been, brought about by hatred.
MetroStage’s production of Anne and Emmett is filled with intensity and fear, but also hope. The cast emotionally and physically live Cohen’s play, and the result is breathtakingly haunting. Anne and Emmett existed. Their meeting is imagined but their fates are not. Playwright Cohen expressed after the performance that this piece was her call to action, and it is effective. Cohen’s script is bold and compelling, begging the question “Will you stand by and allow more horrors to occur, or will you band together and make the world better?”
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes, with no intermission.
Anne & Emmett played from July 28-30, 2017, at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets to upcoming productions call the box office at (703) 548-9044, or purchase them online.