Anne Frank and Emmett Till meet in AAPACT play

Zasha Shary (Anne Frank) and Shawn Burgess (Emmett Till). Photo by Juan E. Cabrera.

She was not thinking of writing a play about Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

Janet Langhart Cohen was just enjoying her life in Washington D.C.’s social whirl as the wife of former Secretary of Defense and U.S. Senator William S. Cohen.

But she did, and now that play, "Anne & Emmett," is being produced by the African American Performing Arts Community Theatre in Miami.

"Bill had just left the Pentagon," explains Cohen, a former Ebony Fashion Fair model and Emmy-nominated journalist. "He encouraged me to write a book because he said, 'You’ve had such an interesting life.' We were at this party and this woman, a friend, came up to me and said, 'I hear you're writing a book. Is it about cooking? Fashion?' "


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Cohen, who used to board her polo horses in West Palm Beach, told her that the book would be called "From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas" (Kensington Books, 2004) and that it was about growing up in "apartheid America." The woman said to Cohen, "You’re successful. You've had such a good life. You have a wonderful husband. Why would you want to go back and cover all of that? It is so unbecoming of you to come off as a victim."

Cohen held her tongue, but stewed for days. "How is it that I knew all their history and they don’t know any of mine? And I don’t know my own history. I know more about the Holocaust than I knew about slavery or Jim Crow. I bet if my friend had to study my history – Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansbury – the way I had to study her history, she wouldn't have been so dismissive."

She thought, "What would Anne Frank say to Emmett Till? I bet she would be more sensitive because she was more worldly."

Cohen says "The Diary of Anne Frank" was required reading during her school years ("She was 14 or 15 when she was writing it and I was about 15 when I read it. I could identify with her.").

And Till's murder by a Mississippi racist mob for allegedly whistling at a white woman happened in 1955 when she was 14 -- the same age as Till ("That picture was in 'Jet' magazine. I saw the cloud come over black people. I watched my mother hold my brother close to her.").

"They had a lot in common. The biggest commonality was they tactics used against them by their oppressors: dominate and destroy."

But there are differences as well, says Cohen.

"The Jewish people tell everyone to remember their history, not just them but everyone. Everyone tells black people to get over it. Forget about it. It's ancient history. When the Jewish people had all their Matisses and all their Rubens and art work taken from them, they get those works back or they got restitution. But when they start talking about reparations and black people, they act like they don't have the accounts and ledgers from the Middle Passage and they do. In certain countries in Europe it is a crime to say there was no Holocaust or to say hate speech. But you can talk about us all you want. The KKK can walk down the street here in the U.S. and get police protection. I saw the commonalities and the separateness."

Cohen’s husband told her to go and write something, that it would be cathartic.

"I felt that 'Anne & Emmett' was sent to me," she explains. "What that woman said to me at that party was hurtful, but happened for a reason: for this play to be ignited in me. Rather than get angry, I got creative."

“Anne & Emmett” runs through May 12 at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Ave., Miami. 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $20. Contact: 305-456-0287 or AAPACT.com.