Janet Langhart Cohen, a writer and journalist married to former defense secretary William S. Cohen, is an accomplished professional with friends in high places in the arts, media and government. Contemplating the stories of Anne Frank and Emmett Till, Cohen found parallels and sought, through drama, to point out those similarities as she enlightened audiences.
Anne & Emmett is the uneven result, a 2011 play that is by turns unsettling, insightful and heavy-handed as Cohen strives to make her points. Imagining a meeting between the two now-famous, tragic teens, Anne & Emmett comes off as a less-than-artful example of theater for young audiences -- though the graphic description of Till’s torture and murder argues against that categorization.
The African American Performing Arts Community Theatre (AAPACT) has just opened its version of Anne & Emmett at Miami’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center. And, like the play itself, the production is uneven.
After a recorded introduction by Morgan Freeman (one of those friends in high places) remarking that “...to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time,” the play begins with Mamie Till (Kandace Crystal) in her tidy Chicago kitchen, reluctantly getting ready to send her 14-year-old only child Emmett (Shawn Burgess) off to visit relatives in Mississippi in the summer of 1955. She stresses, over and over, how he needs to modify his behavior around white southerners, and her brimming-with-life son seems to listen. What neither knew is that an unspeakably brutal death awaited him in a Mississippi barn.
At the other side of the stage, Anne Frank (Zasha Shary) is writing at a tiny desk in the secret Amsterdam office annex where her family hid out from the Nazis from 1942 until their betrayal in 1944. Her father Otto (Sheldon Cohen) comes in to talk to his restless girl, who complains about being cooped up and her difficult relationship with her mother. For all the emotional complexities the real Anne revealed in her famous diary, the one in Anne & Emmett is a whiner.
Soon, at the center of the stage and in what is the heart of the play, the young man murdered at 14 and the young woman who died in a concentration camp at 15 meet. Anne, who has already been there for a decade, explains to a confused and frightened Emmett that they have been summoned to that place by the living who are thinking of them. Slowly, the two teens from different places and eras trade stories. They made observations and find awful similarities in the treatment of blacks in the United States and Jews in Nazi-era Europe. Eventually, they share their personal tragedies, but they’re also able to draw comfort from realizing their importance to those who came after them.
The most valuable asset director Teddy Harrell Jr. has in AAPACT’s Anne & Emmett is Burgess. The young actor gives a rich, credible performance as a teen whose vibrant nature and humor give way to traumatized stuttering and an understandable refusal to revisit his demise in words.
The rest of the cast is problematic. Shary, who is making her stage debut, has two chief emotional modes: angry and dreamy. She mispronounces some words (“Hedy Lamarr” becomes “Heidi Lamarr,” for example), and sometimes comes off as a petulant brat. Crystal gives an earnest performance as Till’s mother, but she’s so young (seemingly so close in age to Burgess) that she’s hard to buy in the role. Cohen fumbles and stumbles in trying to remember lines, undercutting his effectiveness. As J.W. Millam, one of Till’s acquitted killers, Tommy O’Brien spews unrepentant racism and hatred.
The “never forget” motivation behind Anne & Emmett is important and admirable. The result? Not so much.