Imagine that you’re standing face to face with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and your first impression is….. spilling a Coke on him. That’s exactly what happened to Janet Langhart Cohen as a young woman in her twenties. Now she is an Emmy-nominated journalist, author, and playwright, but at the time she was mortified. She recovered, however, and went on to work with Dr. King and others in the struggle for civil rights in the U.S.
“I traveled with Dr. King,” Langhart Cohen said. “He was my mentor, he was my friend, my teacher, and he was not assassinated; he was murdered, and that has stayed with me.”
Langhart Cohen spoke to students and staff at LHS on Nov. 21st in the Ted Sorensen Theatre about her current project, a play entitled, “Anne and Emmett” – an imagined conversation between Anne Frank, a Jewish child victim of the Holocaust, and Emmett Till, an African American child of the U.S. who was beaten and murdered in the 1950s for whistling at a white woman.
The play, which features LHS seniors Landon Beard and Devin Tate as Emmett, will be performed on March 5, 2014 here at the Ted Sorenson Theatre. It answers the question, “What would a fourteen year old boy and a 15 year old girl in two different country 10 years apart say to each other?”
Langhart Cohen feels a special connection to Emmett in particular. “I had a cousin who was lynched, and I am the exact same age as Emmett Till,” she said. “He was born in July of ‘41, and I was born in December or ‘41. Not only were we the same age, we were from the same region.”
When she was 14 years old, she was ready to honor the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. “I was excited to go to school with white students. I had seen them downtown, and here was a chance to integrate,” Langhart Cohen said. But then she and her family got the news about Emmett.
“I saw my elders and my parents live in fear that this could happen to us,” Langhart Cohen said. “If they murdered Emmett because he was black, then the only difference was the he was there and we weren’t. We didn’t want to think that all white people were like this, but yet it was hard to trust.”
“When I was born blacks and whites could not sit together let alone get married to someone of a different race,” Langhart Cohen said. She is now married to former Secretary of Defense William Cohen who is white.
Now that she’s successful and her husband is successful, a friend asked what she had to complain about. Her answer? “My history. I didn’t design my history, my history shaped me, and I wanted to share it.”
“All during the time I was in school, particularly my Jewish friends, would say to remember the Holocaust. You say to remember 9/11, remember our heroes, remember the Mayflower. But African Americans are told 300 and plus years we were slaves, we were told to get over it. And I have to ask, what is the ‘it’ we are supposed to get over? When the legacy of slavery and the history lives in all of us.”
LHS senior Landon Beard is an IB student as well as a dedicated theatre student. He was selected to play Emmett Till in the Lincoln production of Langhart Cohen’s play which ran at the Haymarket Theatre in Late November and early December. Beard trades off roles as Emmett and Trayvonn Martin in the play with senior and close friend LHS senior Devin Tate.
“When I started theatre it was my dream to play as Emmett Till, because there was so much emotion; it is such a challenging role,” Beard said. “I think the race issue is just ignorance. We have generalizations about people; we can’t look past those generalizations. My goal to play Emmett Till is to do him justice.”
Beard enjoyed working with Tate in the show. “It was really cool to see not only myself growing but him growing with me,” Beard said of Tate. “It was great to build off of each other and to have him there to help me and for me to help him to be better.”
Tate has been involved in all LHS Theatre productions since he was a freshman. “I loved the experience straight up from the beginning to portray Emmett Till, but one thing I found was that it was difficult to put myself into the character’s shoes, because I didn’t grow up in the south and experience that much of racism and hate towards a person. That was my biggest obstacle,” Tate said.
“It was so much fun doing it, getting to grow as an actor, and just portray such a great person in history. He incited the civil rights movement,” Tate said.
The cast will do 20 shows (two per day) at all of the high schools and all middle schools.
“It’s going to be a great experience for middle school and high school students,” Tate said.
“It’s a very worthwhile play to see, because it touches on not only the issues of racism in America but hate in the world in general, and it needs to be instilled in them that this is still happening and we need to do something about it,” Tate added.