Anne & Emmett, a Play
Last night (Friday, April 26), I attended a play presented by the Theatre Department of Baltimore’s Morgan State University called Anne & Emmett, written by Janet Langhart Cohen, which imagines a conversation between two young, historic victims of hate crimes: Anne Frank (1929-1945), the well-known German Jewish Holocaust victim, and Emmett Till (1941-1955), the less-well-known Black victim of racial hatred in the American South. The conversation also includes the surviving parents of these respective victim-heroes: Otto Frank, father of Anne, and Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, whose strength in the face of their children’s horrific deaths ensured that their names would be remembered by future generations.
The timing of this presentation (several more performances are scheduled) was planned to coincide with other local events marking the 90th birthday of Anne Frank, and the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in the British Colonies/America, which engendered the seminal culture of white hatred of African-Americans, embodied by the life and violent death of Emmett Till, which ultimately sparked the modern Civil Rights era.
The play raised many issues of concern to Jewish and Black Americans in general, but especially in Baltimore, where the lives of these two communities have often intersected, as their respective paths toward upward mobility have often mirrored each other. Among these issues is a curious competition over who had it worse when it comes to suffering—from slavery, “racial” hatred, unequal treatment of Jewish and Black soldiers, and other indignities of being perceived as “the other.” But purely human concerns, such as the father-daughter bond of Otto and Anne versus the mother-son bond of Mamie and Emmett, were also touched on.
For a one-act play with four characters, a lot of issues had to be covered in a short time.
Nevertheless, the play was well received by the audience, mostly Black folks, with a few White and Jewish folks as well. The “talk back” session after the play was lively and interesting. The director (Reggie Phoenix, an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts at Morgan, with Broadway and Off-Broadway credits) and cast members, whose theatrical experience ranged from professional [Brian Naughton (Otto Frank), a television, film, and stage actor; and Marla S. McKinney Smiley (Mamie Till), a local singer and educator whose soulful voice has graced services at my home church, Metropolitan UMC], to an acting student at Baltimore School for the Arts [Carly Dagilis (Anne Frank), who has appeared in local theatre productions], and a young Morgan theatre student [James Gallmon (Emmett Till), making a spectacular acting debut], engaged the audience in a conversation about the production. All the cast members were asked how they prepared for their roles, but the young actors who portrayed Anne and Emmett gave the most revealing and significant answers: Ms. Dagilis explained that she was very familiar with Anne Frank’s story, having read The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school, but she had not heard of Emmett Till. Mr. Gallmon knew a little about both Anne Frank and Emmett Till but confessed the sight of Till’s mangled body was difficult to see in preparing for the role.
My biggest takeaway from the evening, echoed by other audience members, was that our schools have failed to keep the stories—and the memories—of these two important, young historical figures in the minds and hearts of young people, to the detriment of their understanding of history and human nature.
A Hate Crime in Today’s News
I’ve written occasionally about my work and friendships with Jewish and Black members of the Reservoir Hill community organization IFO (In, For Of, Inc.). These relationships are an extension of a lifelong respect, admiration, and love for these two communities, ingrained, first, by my family’s experiences living among both Black and Jewish neighbors, and then strengthened by my own interfaith/intercultural experiences in school and beyond.
Today (Saturday, April 27) began as a day of celebration—a luncheon celebrating a happy event in the life of one of my Jewish friends. I enjoyed the occasion, the company, and the conversations this afternoon, and I was still feeling rather blessed after I returned home. Until I turned on the news and learned of the latest attack on a U.S. synagogue, this time, in a small California town called Poway. I could not fathom this happening again—especially during a service on the last day of Passover. And 6 months to the day since The Tree of Life attack in Pittsburgh.
For hours, this evening, I felt crushed, unable to make sense of it all; today’s events even seemed ironic, in a way. But then, I reread the Director’s Notes from Anne & Emmett. Reggie Phoenix invoked “the current occupant of the White House” as an instigator of the current climate of hatred tearing our country apart. Of course, we also know that this climate of hatred is rampant around the world, as it has been periodically throughout history. Next, I recalled an audience member who’d asked Carly Dagilis to recite a line she’d delivered as Anne Frank, essentially describing this hatred as a force of darkness that can only be overcome by spreading light. And finally, I remembered what the Mayor of Poway, California had to say of his community: that we walk with our arms around each other.
That is how Love Conquers Hate.