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November 01, 2015

A Conversation with Playwright Janet Cohen

By Judge Stephanie Domitrovitch

Janet Langhart Cohen is the author of a one-act play, Anne & Emmett, wherein an imaginary conversation occurs between Anne Frank, the heroic and tragic victim of Nazi genocide, and Emmett Till, a black youth murdered in the 1950s Jim Crow South. Ms. Cohen was raised in a housing project in Indianapolis, Indiana, by her mother, who worked as a maid and hospital ward secretary. Ms. Cohen currently serves as president and CEO of Langhart Communications and is married to former Defense Secretary William Cohen. Anne & Emmett premiered at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in June 2009. I had the pleasure of viewing the play at a conference of Pennsylvania trial judges, and later I interviewed Ms. Cohen.

What was your goal in writing this play?

One of my goals in life is to try to comprehend the many contradictions that exist in the human experience and why such a sharp difference exists between what we profess and what we practice. We all know Anne Frank’s story; she was a young Jewish girl who perished in Hitler’s Holocaust, and left a diary touching the hearts of millions. Fewer people know about Emmett Till, the young 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered because he whistled at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. His murder galvanized the modern civil rights movement. I wrote this play principally for the classroom to show young students the commonality between two people from different races, religions, and regions.

My goal was and is not simply to point fingers or assess blame. I continue to try to cast a few shafts of illumination on areas that by design or indifference have remained in the shadows of our thoughts and actions. Black people and white people see things differently. Some might look at the classic optical illusion illustration and see the face of an elegant woman, while others see an old woman. While we may never be able to eliminate our biases, by becoming aware that these biases exist, we will be better able to manage them.

Before you became a playwright, you were a journalist. What are your thoughts about how the media impacts the tendency to be biased?

The entertainment world plays an important role in reinforcing implicit bias. We know words can wound and we know that “one picture is worth one thousand words.” We need to confront the motivations of those who exploit black stereotypes. During my professional career in modeling and television, my color was consistently used to define me. My English was considered too polished in that I was “not black enough.” Others said my appearance lacked sufficient “identifiability” with “the community.” I didn’t fit the media’s image of what a black person is supposed to look like or act as.

What are your thoughts as to how those in the justice system can help move us toward a more just society?

Implicit bias hides in plain sight yet often goes undetected or unacknowledged by those responsible for the fair administration of our laws. Those charged with helping to preserve our rule of law would benefit from an internal scan of their innermost thoughts to determine if any malignant biases have gone undetected. Implicit bias is not only found in our actions, but also in the tone and text of our language in court. For example, at the routine bail hearing held for Dylan Roof, the alleged perpetrator of the South Carolina church killings, the judge admonished the grieving families of the murdered victims for not being mindful of the pain suffered by the killer’s family. The judge’s tone during the hearing was entirely appropriate, but his timing and text were not.

As a start, judges and lawyers might ask themselves the following questions:

  • Why do white people see the police as protecting them and black people view the police as patrolling them?
  • Why are black people convinced a separate line exists for them to stand in at “fountains of justice”?
  • Why do black people believe they are surveilled in retail stores more than they are served?
  • Is voter fraud the reason voter ID laws are promoted, or are these laws being used as impediments to voting?

What did you hope to convey in Anne & Emmett?

My hope is that my play will call forth the better angels of our nature and cast off policies and practices inconsistent with our ideals so we may reach a higher level of humanity, decency, and justice. I have faith, like Anne Frank did, in the goodness of people. It’s written: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In Charleston, South Carolina, I saw my faith vindicated where in the wake of great tragedy, black people did not riot, and white people pulled down the symbolic Confederate flag. I saw in their humanity how we could become the America we were always meant to be.