Museum Shooting Draws Attention To Play About Hate

A new play was set to debut Wednesday night at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The play, "Anne and Emmett, is centered around an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. The deadly shooting at the museum delayed the play's debut, but ironically has made its focus even more poignant. Playwright Janet Langhart Cohen talks about the horrific turn of events and what inspired her to write "Anne and Emmett."

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Barbershop guys have their say about the week's news. But first, we want to talk more about the shooting Wednesday in Washington, D.C., an act that left an innocent man dead, the shooter badly wounded, that closed the place of contemplation and remembrance and halted the debut of a play about two young victims of hate. It's not clear, when James von Brunn, a committed white supremacist, walked into the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and shot Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns on Wednesday, that he knew that just a few hours later the memorial was scheduled to host a performance of a play about intolerance.

That play is called "Anne and Emmett." It's constructed around an imaginary conversation between the legendary Anne Frank, the Holocaust victim whose memoir has inspired millions around the world, and Emmett Till, the black American boy whose lynching was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Janet Langhart Cohen is the author of that play. She was on her way to a rehearsal at the museum when she learned of the shooting. Needless to say, the debut was cancelled, but a second performance is scheduled for tonight and will go forward. She stopped by our studio in Washington yesterday and, of course, I asked her how she was doing.

MARTIN: I'm okay. I was swinging in a place called surreal for the last 24 hours. You know, you're getting ready for opening night, and I was en route and my husband called me because he was already there. He was looking at the previous rehearsal, and he wanted to know where I was. And I said, well, I'm on my way. I'm on Nebraska Avenue. He said, well, there's been a shooting.

MARTIN: For those who do not know, your husband is former secretary of Defense William Cohen. Part of the reason I'm mentioning this is that he was there. You were scheduled to be there. The debut of the play was meant to include a number of high-profile guests. And I also want to mention that you and your husband are a biracial couple.

MARTIN: Yes.

MARTIN: He's half Jewish. You are African-American. This person is known, the person who is believed to be the shooter, is known to have a deep animus towards African-Americans and Jews. And I wonder whether you think you and your husband were a target?

MARTIN: No, I don't think so. I think this was a deranged, hateful person. And it is ironic that it would be a white racist killing a black man at a Jewish shrine, and the play "Anne and Emmett," this imaginary conversation is about the hate that killed them both.

MARTIN: How did you get the idea for this play?

MARTIN: I was at a luncheon here in Washington, D.C., and I was writing my book, "From Rage to Reason: My Life In Two Americas." And one of the luncheon guests said: What do you mean, rage? And I said, well, my life in two Americas - I grew up in apartheid America, a segregated America, a Jim Crow America where when I was a little girl, we had to sit on the back of the bus in certain parts of this country and I wanted to write about that experience. And she said to me oh, Janet, you're so successful. You're married to a prominent man. It would be so unbecoming of you to play the victim.

MARTIN: Unbecoming.

MARTIN: I was going to say I'm not a victim. I'm a survivor. But I grew up understanding the Holocaust and its atrocities. And I understand the word survivor in many cases has a capital S. And because she was Jewish, I didn't say I'm a survivor out of respect. So I held my tongue. And I came home and I told Bill, I said it is so hurtful to hear that remembering my history is unbecoming. And I said I wonder what Anne Frank would have said to Emmett Till. And he said, well, why don't you go write something? I took out my BlackBerry and I - I never learned to type, Michel. You know, always afraid of breaking the nails. It's a girl thing, I guess. But I'm pretty good on the BlackBerry with the thumbs. And I just sat down and remembered all I could remember about Anne Frank because she touched my life in a way, in a different way than Emmett touched my life.

MARTIN: Just to pause here for one second - with so many interesting historical confluences coming together, I mean, I believe that June 12th would have been Anne Frank's...

MARTIN: Her 80th birthday.

MARTIN: Her 80th birthday. And also to that point, Emmett Till was 15. He was murdered in Money, Mississippi in 1955, allegedly because he whistled at a white woman.

MARTIN: White woman.

MARTIN: And this was perceived - first of all, we don't know if that actually happened. But it was perceived as such a gross affront that he was literally tortured and his body mutilated and thrown into a swamp. And his mother made the very powerful choice to have an open casket and let the world see.

MARTIN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So the idea of having these two teenagers talk to each other - there's a short clip of the play that I want to play now, because this murder of Emmett Till was a cautionary tale for boys, young men, for a generation. And there's this question of what role do you play in your own oppression that both Anne and Emmett had to think about at some point. I just want to play a clip where they're actually - Anne and Emmett are actually having an argument. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "ANNE AND EMMETT")

MARTIN: (as Anne Frank) Maybe you should have listened to your mother (unintelligible). I mean, you'd still be alive today if...

MARTIN: (as Emmett Till) If I what? Lived by the white man's rules? Jumping off sidewalks to let white folks pass? Or licking their boots along the way.

MARTIN: (as Anne Frank) But you knew your life was worth more than a whistle.

MARTIN: (as Emmett Till) You don't get it. It wasn't about the damn whistle. It was about hate. They hated me just for being alive.

MARTIN: (as Anne Frank) You knew what the (unintelligible).

MARTIN: (as Emmett Till) (unintelligible) people fought back against the Nazis.

MARTIN: (as Anne Frank) We did. We resisted. Everyone hates the Jews, but we - just passive sheep being led out to slaughter - it's a lie.

MARTIN: I was fascinated by this scene because each of them is dealing with opinions about the other.

MARTIN: You always want to have conflict in a play. You try to avoid it in life, but it works on the stage. And I had to remember that they were teenagers, and teenagers are more open than adults are. They're less politically correct. And he was telling about the whistle. And his cousin, Simeon Wright, who comes to every performance that I have of the play whether it's a reading or an outright performance, did - was there with him. And Michel, he told me what I had been denying in my life, that Emmett did whistle. He did whistle. But even so, it was a young boy showing off, trying to prove to his cousins he didn't have to do things and scrap and act like a happy Negro down there.

So I see them in this scene where she says I wish you'd listened to your mother. You should have listened to your mother, and you wouldn't - and he said, and if I'd been silent? Your silence didn't save you. And she said you don't get it. You don't understand. So there's this tug of war between the two of them as two kids would do. And they're not trying to outdo each other as to who is more of a victim. You know, sometimes we blacks and Jews do that - who is more of a victim, who's had a greater holocaust. Who - was it slavery? Was it the Nazis? And here, they're just being children, talking about that, and nobody wins except the haters.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author, activist, broadcaster, playwright Janet Langhart Cohen. We're talking about her new play. It's an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. It's called "Anne and Emmett."

Another theme very present in the play is the question of how one should personally respond to hate. But you construct the character of Emmett after his death as being somewhat bitter and angry, while Anne, after - is a bit more optimistic. I just want to play another short clip of where they kind of play out these different responses. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "ANNE AND EMMETT")

MARTIN: (as Emmett Till) I wish I could let the rage go. I still remember that night they came for me, how they dragged me out, took out my eyes. Everything going dark.

MARTIN: (as Anne Frank) The universe isn't dark enough to snuff out the light of a single candle. I can't remember who said that, but that's what I always try to do. Inside, that is. I think of a candle flickering inside my mind. It makes me smile. I have hope, believing everything I've been through hasn't been just a waste. You should try it, Emmett.

MARTIN: Where are you in this?

MARTIN: I'm both of them. I'm both Anne and Emmett. The title of my book was "From Rage to Reason." I gave Emmett my voice, my rage. I've never read anything that he might have written. So I put myself into his character because I'm the same age, same race, came from the same region, had the same experiences in the South with white people. Anne is the 15-year-old girl that I was, coming of age, half woman, half girl, having issues with her mother and having a sibling, a sister, and wanting to be daddy's favorite, and yet being cooped up in a scary place waiting for somebody to come and get you and knowing what would happen to you. He has a reason to be angry. When he comes out of this space of reality and comes into memory, he remembers what happened to him, and his death was very personal and hands-on. He was mutilated. His murderers touched him and disfigured him and threw him in the river. So he has an anger, and I feel that anger from the memory of hearing of his death.

Anne, her murderers were just as brutal, but they didn't put their hands on her. It was a different kind of death. She was killed in Bergen-Belsen and died of typhus.

MARTIN: Typhus.

MARTIN: Typhus. And I tried to remember, tried to be pure to her diary. Anne said, I believe in the goodness of people, that people are really good at heart. And I remembered her words when I heard the news that this man had killed this young security officer, Officer Johns. I tried to remember that there is the goodness in people.

MARTIN: Is that hard to think today? Is that hard to hold on to today?

MARTIN: As an African-American woman living in this country all my life, it's always hard to hold onto. We go from euphoria of having an African-American president for the first time to seeing more young African-American men accidentally killed by police, you know. I mean, it seems as though...

MARTIN: Or each other.

MARTIN: Each other, that own internal genocide. The legacy of slavery. Emmett, in the play, talks about the legacy of slavery. He said, you don't know how badly slavery messed us up. Field slave against house slave, you know. It divided us from each other, pitted us against each other. We still have that legacy even now, it's sad to say.

MARTIN: The play will go forward. The performance at the Holocaust Museum was, of course, canceled out of respect for all of what had occurred. It will go forward. What are you hoping that people will draw from the play? And I understand that you were particularly hoping that young people, who are the age that Anne and Emmett were, will see it.

MARTIN: I wrote the play for the young people. I am working with the National Council for the Social Studies to have it as part of the curricula in our school system, for middle- to high-school students, and I want it to enlighten general audiences.

If it can just reach people and enlighten them and remind them that we're not that different. We may have different histories, different colors of skin, different religion, but we all have struggle and pain in our history. And then I want the play to be a call to action, especially after yesterday.

We can no longer have bystanders and silent witnesses and deniers. We have to all come forward, and this isn't directed to white people or black people or Christians or Jews or Muslim. This is directed to the good people of our society, and they know who they are.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, I'm sure this is something you'll be thinking about for a long time, if not forever, but what do you think it means that this man came to this place to do harm at that time?

MARTIN: Well, it's tragic and some have said poetic and ironic. Some have said even divine, and if there's any divinity in this is that it awakens people maybe that had been asleep on the issue of racism and all the -isms, anti-Semitism. Maybe something can be done. Maybe people will take to the call to action and realize that hate still lives, that none of us are safe. We must do something.

MARTIN: Author, activist, journalist, playwright Janet Langhart Cohen. Her new play, "Anne and Emmett," will debut this Friday at George Washington University's Jack Morton Auditorium right here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: If you'd like to learn more about "Anne and Emmett," you can find a link on our Web site. Just go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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