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Courtland Milloy on the Debut of 'Anne and Emmett'

Actors Kenneth Washington, left, and Amal Saade, composer Joshua Coyne, writer Janet Langhart Cohen, and actors Leo Breckenridge and Megan Graves.
Actors Kenneth Washington, left, and Amal Saade, composer Joshua Coyne, writer Janet Langhart Cohen, and actors Leo Breckenridge and Megan Graves. (By Courtland Milloy -- The Washington Post)
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By Courtland Milloy
Sunday, June 14, 2009

You can tell when an actor owns the role, personifies the spirit of the character being portrayed. And so it was Friday night at George Washington University that two broken-hearted witnesses to hate breathed love and life into a play about Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

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"All of a sudden, there was a force behind it -- a power coming from somewhere outside of me," said Amal Saade, who played Anne. "It felt like a force from the security guard who was slain was moving through me. It wasn't just my energy. I could never generate that much energy on my own."

The security guard was Stephen T. Johns, a black man who worked at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The play, "Anne and Emmett," about an imagined meeting between the two martyred teens, had been set to debut Wednesday night at the museum. But it was as if Adolf Hitler and Jim Crow had struck from the grave in protest, canceling the performance with the killing of Johns earlier in the day; an 88-year-old white disciple of hate named James W. von Brunn was charged.

The play at GWU went on without incident. Saade and Leo Breckenridge, who played Emmett, transformed the tragedy into a triumph of truth over lies, love over hate, reality and remembrance over white supremacist delusion and Holocaust denial.

Playwright Janet Langhart Cohen had set out to produce a living history lesson aimed primarily at schoolchildren, peers of Anne, who was 15 when she died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, and Emmett, who was 14 when he was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. After the killing at the Holocaust museum, requests for performances of the play are coming in from around the world.

The message could not have been more timely. It's not enough to simply remember human atrocity, to stand by as silent witness to racism and anti-Semitism, to ignore words that incite violence then look on in confounded curiosity at the tragic results. We must do more to prevent it.

In the play, Anne and Emmett meet in a place called Memory. She's in a room, working on her famous diary, when Emmett appears against the backdrop of a tree with a noose hanging from a limb.

Emmett: "After all we've been through, Anne, we get to be just a moment in someone's mind? All they have to do is remember? That's it? They don't have to do anything?"

Anne: "I have an idea. . . . Tikkun olam. From the Talmud. It means a moral obligation to repair the world. . . . That's what we can do. Join forces and repair the world."

When selected for the roles, Saade, 26, and Breckenridge, 23, could only imagine the kind of hate that leads to murder on account of race or religion. To portray Anne and Emmett, they would rely mostly on historical records and theatrical technique. But that all changed during a final dress rehearsal at the Holocaust museum Wednesday afternoon. A sacred space stained with blood, walls of remembrance riddled with bullets, SWAT teams with dogs searching for more possible suspects; the past became present, the make-believe made real.

"They burst into the theater, saying we need to leave the museum right now, and when we came out of the theater, people were running everywhere," Breckenridge recalled. "When I found out what had happened, I felt terrible. I had come in through Officer Johns's door that morning. It was a thing, like, 'This man is just another brother waking up, going to work, holding the door open for an elderly man.' And for this to happen . . . "

Residual sadness and anger would give his Emmett a power not seen in rehearsals.

The production was directed by award-winning playwright Robbie McCauley. It featured a narration by actor Morgan Freeman and original music by 16-year-old composer and violinist Joshua Coyne.

More performances are being scheduled that will include two other fine actors: Megan Graves as Anne and Kenneth L. Washington Jr. as Emmett. For more information, go to www.anneandemmett.net.

An overflow audience saw the play at the Jack Morton Auditorium, located a few blocks from George Washington University Hospital. That's where von Brunn is being treated for gunshot wounds.

You could imagine that he heard the standing ovation, a message that he had failed.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com


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