Black Rep’s ‘Anne & Emmett’ is powerful and poignant

Courtney Elaine Brown as Anne Frank and Eric J. Conners as Emmett Till. Photo: Todd Davis/The Black Rep

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Suspend disbelief for 90 minutes and imagine a meeting in a mythic place called Memory, between Anne Frank, the iconic “young girl” whose diary riveted the world on the horrors of the Holocaust, and Emmett Till, another 14-year-old, whose brutal murder by Mississippi bigots in 1955 was a major galvanizing event in the Civil Rights Movement. Such is the premise of “Anne & Emmett,” by Janet Langhart Cohen, a longtime broadcast journalist, which the Black Rep is presenting in a powerful and poignant production.

In less capable hands, “Anne & Emmett” might not have worked as a concept for the stage. But Cohen’s script, with dialogue alternating between the free-spirited exchanges of two exuberant teenagers from different eras and backgrounds, and profoundly disturbing eyewitness testimony to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the lynch mob mentality of Mississippi during the mid-1950s, has the believability of breaking news and the emotional impact of two potentially brilliant lives cut short.


The play is superbly directed by Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the Black Rep, which is marking its 20th anniversary of performing at the Grandel Theatre.

The small cast delivers uniformly flawless performances. As Anne Frank, Courtney Elaine Brown humanizes her mythic character without draining away any of the power of the narrative she left in her immortal “Diary of a Young Girl.”

Eric J. Conners faced a different challenge in restoring Emmett Till to renewed life on the stage. Unlike Anne, not everyone is familiar with Emmett, a high-spirited black teen from Chicago whose brutal murder by a group of racists in Mississippi came as a result of him whistling at a white woman. He was savagely beaten to death before his weighted-down young body was tossed into a river.

Conners wholly inhabits his character, imbuing him with equal parts playfulness and pain. So impactful is the telling of his story our hearts literally break as we learn that his face was so badly mutilated it was difficult to positively identify his remains. The fact that he was still wearing his father’s heirloom silver ring proves that the body was indeed that of Till. His mother insisted that his casket be open and allowed Jet magazine to publish a photograph of his disfigured face so that the murder could not be covered up.

We know from Anne Frank’s diary that she believed her mother, Edith Frank, favored her older sister Margot. Anne’s relationship to her father Otto, who survived the death camps and later found and published Anne’s diary was warm and close. Jerry Vogel is excellent as the kindly, patient Otto Frank who refuses to tell Anne that she is his ‘favorite,” but who clearly has a very affectionate and understanding relationship with her. In an unusual twist, Vogel also delivers and blood-curdling performance as J. W. Milam, one of Emmett’s vicious murderers, all of whom were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Emmett Till had a parallel close relationship with his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, who is brought to the stage in a stunning portrayal by Patrese McClain. Mamie knows full well of the risks Emmett is taking by going ahead with his long-anticipated visit to his Mississippi cousins. She warms him repeatedly of the dangers of even looking a white person in the eye, let alone a white woman.

In the play’s mythical land of Memory, Anne and Emmett are able to get to know each other and share their stories. Like two normal teens, they borderline flirt and tease one another, and then switch to telling their distinctive stories about living as members of minorities which for centuries have been victims of hatred and persecution—slavery, segregation, separation, mass murder. Neither Anne nor Emmett “asked” to be born into these persecuted minorities. Emmett rails that he feels just as imprisoned in his “skin” as Anne did in the annex. He wants to lead a normal life, perhaps becoming a comedian or a Chicago cop just like Anne imagines herself becoming a great novelist and poet. Unfortunately, both of their dreams – and their lives – were undone by blind hate.

Still, it seems each of these 14-year-olds, Anne Frank and Emmett Till, was fated to become icons of the Holocaust and the Civil Rights struggle. But they were real, flesh-and-blood people, and thanks to a sensitive script by playwright Janet Langhart Cohen, skilled direction by Ron Himes and outstanding acting, their voices are given another opportunity to speak to contemporary audiences. This play is clearly a must-see and especially suitable for those 12 years old and up.