Cohen has not one but two good stories in Anne and Emmett. One, the story of Anne Frank and the diary she kept in her family's hiding place in Amsterdam and the snuffing out of her life and its promise in a Nazi concentration camp, we're familiar with. The story of Emmett Till may not be as well remembered. A black boy from Chicago, he visited relatives in Mississippi in 1955 and made the mistake of whistling at a white woman – some say he was trying to get her attention in her store and whistled because his stutter stopped his words. Or he may have been showing off his Chicago boldness for his cousins. In any case, it cost him his life. Like Anne, he was dead at 14, a victim of racist hate.
Playwright Cohen has these two meet in place called Memory, where their existence continues as long as the living remember them. At the Black Rep, scenic designer Jim Burwinkel and lighting designer Kathy Perkins evoke the place with gauze curtains and chiaroscuro in which the characters fade in and out like memory. Daryl Harris's costumes place them in their period; Bryce Allen's sound completes their world.
When Anne and Emmett meet, they tell each other their stories. This means that much of the play is a narrative about what has happened in the past, not an enactment of something happening now. That's rarely the best way to create theatre. Cohen has included some flash-back scenes – Emmett's mother trying to warn him about how he must behave in Mississippi, Anne's father trying to offer her hope in their confinement.
Director Ron Himes and his cast find all the drama and theatricality they can in the piece. Courtney Elaine Brown dreams and hopes and suffers as Anne. Eric J. Conners' Emmett wants to be a man but can't stifle boyish impulses and enthusiasm. Both capture the youth of their characters. Patrese McClain, who has been so magnificent recently in the Black Rep's No Child . . ., fortunately is back on stage to play Emmett's mother. Jerry Vogel embodies fatherly love and concern as Anne's father and pure hate as one of the men who killed Emmett.
Still, Anne and Emmett never quite escapes the sense that you're being given a history lesson – sometimes, even a sermon. That's not necessarily bad, if done as well as it is here. Theatre can be useful that way. And these are stories young people, at whom the production may be aimed, should know.