Janet Langhart Cohen’s friend meant no harm with her words, but what she said to Cohen bothered her.
The African-American author, journalist and activist had just published her book “From My Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas,” which dealt with her personal and ethnic history, including her experiences with racism.
The friend couldn’t believe Langhart Cohen would write something like that.
“She said, ‘Oh Janet, you’re so successful, why do you want to go back into all of that?” Langhart Cohen said in a phone interview. “She said, ‘It’s not believable. It wouldn’t be becoming for you to be a victim.' I thought, ‘I can’t believe she said that’ when all the things I had to study was about European history and all the struggles."
Langhart Cohen guessed her friend would think differently if she had studied Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in school “as I did about the struggles in European history.”
It led her to think more deeply about both histories. Was there a way to tell a story that entailed both? Langhart did just that, writing the play “Anne & Emmett,” which tells of a fictional meeting between German teen Anne Frank and American teen Emmett Till -- two teen martyrs who were killed because of who they were.
Frank was a 13-year-old Jewish girl whose diary provided a gripping perspective of the Holocaust, while Till was a 14-year-old African-American boy whose brutal murder in the South galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement.
“What inspired the story was the woman saying I should forget my history when everybody else is told to remember theirs,” Langhart Cohen said.
The playwright, 71, will be in Lincoln with her husband, William Cohen, a former secretary of defense, Thursday for opening night of the Haymarket Theatre’s production of her play. She also will visit Lincoln High School while she’s in the Capital City -- her first visit here since her modeling days in the early 1960s.
Langhart Cohen is best known for her TV work. During a 25-year career, she appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC and BET. She hosted numerous morning shows, covered special assignments for “Entertainment Tonight,” hosted several national programs, including “On Capitol Hill with Janet Langhart” and was an overseas correspondent.
Her play, directed by Bobby Bonaventura, stars Jessie Tidball as Anne and Devon Tate and Landon Beard as Emmett. Other cast members are David Landis, Kwakiutl Dreher and Jordan Deffenbaugh. It will run for three weekends.
“Anne & Emmett” opens with the two teenagers meeting in Memory, a place that isolates them from the cruelty they experience during their lifetimes. The beyond-the-grave encounter highlights the startling similarities between the two youths’ harrowing experiences and the atrocities of anti-Semitism and racism.
“While doing research, as I laid them both side by side, I found parallels of their lives and their struggles,” Langhart Cohen said. “And the tactics each of their oppressors used against them were virtually the same -- the dehumanizing, the demeaning, the destroying.”
And it’s still happening, Langhart Cohen said, making the messages in her play all that more meaningful.
“The call to action is to recognize that hate still lives,” she said. “Look at Treyvon Martin, look at Brandon Teena, look at Matthew Shepard; hate still lives. The seeds of genocide are still there. The call to action of the play is to recognize that and to take action and do something about it.”
Reach Jeff Korbelik at 402-473-7213 or email@example.com, or follow him @LJSjeffkorbelik.