He was a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, murdered for talking to a
white woman in 1955 Mississippi. She was a teenage Jew in 1940s
Amsterdam who unsuccessfully hid from the Nazis and perished in a
What did these two young people have in common? What if they were to meet and have a conversation?
This hypothetical comes to life today at Emerson College’s Semel Theater in a reading of Boston media veteran Janet Langhart Cohen’s play, “Anne and Emmett.” The one-act drama, brought to the stage by Emerson’s Department of Performing Arts and its Center for Diversity in the Communication Industries, presents a fictional pairing of Emmett Till and Anne Frank, reflecting on their tragedies and those still occurring today. The reading takes place just days after the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and during Holocaust Remembrance Month.
“We are thrilled that Janet Langhart Cohen has selected Emerson College to debut this important work,” said Emerson College President Jackie Liebergott. “The message in ‘Anne and Emmett’ reflects Emerson’s continued commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
A sobering representation of the violence of the Jim Crow South, Till’s story is well known in black history. At the age of 14, Till was visiting an uncle in Money, Miss. Unaccustomed to Southern segregation, he whistled at Carolyn Bryant, a married white storekeeper. A few days later, Till was kidnapped by her husband and his half-brother, severely beaten, shot and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. At Till’s funeral, his mother Mamie Till insisted on an open casket, as she said, to “let the people see what they did to my boy.” Photographs of his mutilated face and body spread in publications throughout the country, including Jet magazine.
A decade earlier, an equally tragic fate befell Frank, a German Jew living in Holland when Hitler came to power. As life for Jews became progressively worse and Frank’s family were about to be brought to a work camp, they hid with the help of some non-Jewish friends. In 1942, at age 13, Frank entered the “Secret Annex,” where she would spend every hour of every day for two years in tight quarters with her family and others, surviving on limited food and keeping a diary the entire time. But the Nazis found them in August 1944 and sent them to different concentration camps.
Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, just weeks before the British 11th Armoured Division liberated the camp. Her father Otto survived, and was given her diary, which had been left in the Annex. The diary was published in 1947, and has sold tens of millions of copies, eventually becoming adapted as both a play and a film. In 1960, the hiding place was opened to the public as the Anne Frank House, and is now a museum.
“Anne and Emmett” will be read by Emerson sophomore Krista Buccellato as Frank and Boston Arts Academy junior Elyas Harris as Till, with direction by Robbie McCauley, an Emerson professor and artistic director of the Roxbury Repertory Theatre. The presentation will be followed by a discussion session, affording Langhart Cohen an opportunity to offer her perspective of how the play addresses racial, ethnic and religious prejudices, particularly the common prejudicial history shared by blacks and Jews like Till and Frank.
Till was just one of the many black men and women degraded, beaten and lynched after Reconstruction. Frank was just one of 6 million European Jews murdered, enslaved and trapped in ghettos. Throughout time, both groups have suffered racism and anti-Semitism across the globe.
Emphasizing that shared — and continuing — struggle was critical for Langhart Cohen, an African American author and journalist who hosted the “Good Day!” morning show on WCVB Channel 5 in the 1970s and later wrote a column for the Boston Herald. She is married to William S. Cohen, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, who is of Jewish descent. The play was originally published in “Love in Black and White: A Memoir of Race, Religion and Romance,” William Cohen’s 2007 book about the couple’s interracial marriage.
“Since completing ‘Anne and Emmett’ last year, there has not been a month that has gone by where there has not been an incident of racial or religious intolerance or bias,” said Langhart Cohen.
“While ‘Anne and Emmett’ represents to victims of racism and anti-Semitism, tragically, intolerance is not limited to race and religion. Both of their stories serve as a vivid reminder of what happens when intolerance intersects with indifference.”