Anne & Emmett is a rare misstep for director Ron Himes and the Black Rep. Janet Langhart Cohen's drama explores the personal histories of two children, Anne Frank (Courtney Elaine Brown) and Emmett Till (Eric J. Connors), whose similarities to one another begin but don't end with the fact that each was infamously murdered. In her notes on the production, Cohen writes that she intended for the play to educate young people about the lives of Frank and Till, and to honor their legacy. But noble intentions do not necessarily result in a solid play. Cohen's script has little in the way of drama (particularly if you are familiar with Frank's and Till's individual histories); it relies too heavily on straight exposition and much of the language is tin-eared at best.
The conceit of Anne & Emmett is that both titular characters meet in "a place called Memory," which is a mostly featureless realm. We gradually learn from Anne that they can only occupy this space when someone still living thinks about them. If the light in Memory begins to flicker, that means they aren't on anyone's mind, and they'll be banished to...well, some other place that's not explained in the play. As to why the two are together, Anne chirps brightly, "I know! Someone imagined us together."
And here begins the exposition as the two puzzle out why they came to exist in the same thought. Anne slowly explains who she is and what the Nazis did to her family and relates some highlights from her diary. Emmett relays his history, from his Chicago home life with his mother, Mamie (Patrice McClain), to his summer visit with his cousins in Mississippi to his eventual murder by vengeful racists.
There is a didactic tone to Anne and Emmett's conversation that assumes you have no knowledge of the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews or the institutional racism of America in the '50s. Even assuming that a young audience would be shocked by the slow reveal of each person's fate, the artlessness of the script and its tendency to tell everything rather than show anything is hard to endure.
There are moments, however, when Himes and the cast create something from (almost) nothing. Brown imbues Anne Frank with intelligence and a generous spirit that helps carry her (and the audience) through many a thicket of back-story. Connors narrates Till's abduction, torture and murder in a powerful monologue that is affecting and chilling. The infamous photo of Till's body in its open casket is projected above him when he relays his mother's fight to bury her son, and the combination of actor's choked voice and horrific image is ineffably sad.
Anne & Emmett could use more moments that pack that same emotional punch.
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