Janet Langhart Cohen was at one of those ladies’ luncheons a few years ago when a friend asked about the book she was writing. The wife of former senator and Defense Secretary Bill Cohen explained it was a look at changing race relations in her lifetime.
You’ve got it all, responded the woman. “Why bring up the past?” she told the African American author and journalist. “It would be so unbecoming of you to be a victim.”
The comment, and the wish to whitewash her history, stunned Cohen. Her first play, “Anne & Emmett,” was conceived that day: a look at the past through the lives of two teenage martyrs, Anne Frank and Emmett Till.
The play had its first full production at D.C.’s Atlas Performing Arts Center over the weekend. Vice President Joe Biden topped the list of VIPs at Thursday’s opening including Michael Douglas, Dick Gregory, Bob Johnson and John Conyers; other performances drew Alan Greenspan, Wolf Blitzer, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell and a Holocaust survivor who was housed in the same camp as Frank.
Cohen, 69, grew up in Indianapolis and studied Frank’s diary in high school. “She was required reading in my all-black high school. I fell in love with her.” Around the same time, the nation was rocked by the death of 14-year-old Till, murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. Both stories had a tremendous impact on the young would-be writer.
“It was amazing now much I remembered about both of them,” said Cohen. “I thought Anne and Emmett would have a lot to say to each other.” Their stories became the core of her play: an imaginary conversation about hate and prejudice as the teens discover the similarities in their short lives.
Opening night was scheduled for June 10, 2009 at the Holocaust Museum. That afternoon, a 88-year-old white supremacist walked into the lobby and shot one of the guards. “A neo-Nazi murders a black man,” said Cohen. “I went from opening-night jitters to murder at the museum. It was surreal.”
There was a public reading at George Washington University two days later; Cohen has taken the play (targeted at middle- and high-schoolers) across the country. The four-day run at Atlas — with New York actors and director, full sets and a voiceover donated by Morgan Freeman — came courtesy of her husband, who served as producer for the show. Translation: He wrote the checks.
How much? “It’s extravagant,” she said. The play, she admits, is unlikely to bring much fame or fortune: “A difference is what I want to make, not the money.”