“We were the victims of a broken promise,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King was referring to specific broken promises about desegregation in the 1960s American South, yet his words still resonate today, as a January 17 performance of Letters from Anne & Martin at Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees made clear.
The US has repeatedly failed to make good on its assurances of justice and freedom for all in a wider world in which bigotry, hatred, and the infliction of what King referred to as “nobodiness” on various groups of people continue to have devastating ramifications. The civil rights leader’s cautions about complacency are unfortunately still going unheeded.
This year, Martin Luther King Day falls on Monday, January 20. One week later, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While there is no conflating the Holocaust with the experiences of Black Americans before and during segregation, we can draw some parallels between anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism, and the indifference and hatred that enabled both groups to be systematically “othered.”
Anne and Martin
Letters from Anne & Martin is a poignant combination of the words of Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., created by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect (AFC) to inspire audiences to see the connection between inaction and suffering. The Kellman Brown event drew a multigenerational audience, and it’s easy to see why Letters from Anne & Martin is AFC’s most-requested performance.
While it might not seem as if a 13-year-old Jewish girl living in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam and a 34-year-old Black Baptist preacher and activist from Alabama would have much, if anything, in common, Anne and Martin were both born in 1921, both died as a direct result of bigotry, and both used the written word to convey powerful messages about the dangers of hatred and complacency.
Reading then and now
I read The Diary of Anne Frank in middle school, and I still feel its impact on me today. The juxtaposition of a teenage girl’s poignant revelations about life with her quotidian concerns made her infinitely relatable. Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t romanticize Anne Frank as a pretty, tragic young figurehead. I thought about all the diaries she would never get to write.
It was probably around the same time that I was first introduced to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. As a multiracial person (half African American, half white), it felt like King’s words were supposed to resonate in my bones. But while I appreciated his message and saw its cultural relevance, I related more to the teenage Anne than the adult preacher. It wasn’t until I got older that I reread King’s speech and cried, not only for how far we have come, but for how far we have left to go. As an adult, I’ve also repeatedly read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which King wrote after being imprisoned for a peaceful protest. King’s urgent message, as well as his thoughtful and deliberate strategy, have profoundly impacted me.
After seeing Letters from Anne & Martin, it seems self evident that the powerful and relevant messages of these two figures should be reinforced both separately and together—especially through performance. Sure, Anne and Martin’s words are evocative and inspiring in their own right, but the two talented actors (Rachel Griesinger and Wesli Spencer) brought their writings to life in a way that drives home their messages of acceptance and inclusion. Each actor engaged with the character and with each other in a powerful and evocative expression of history and humanity.
“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers,” Spencer said on the simple stage, making it clear that people have three options when it comes to relating to each other: love, hate, or indifference. The classically trained actor, staring out at the audience, inspired each of us to recognize our interconnectedness. Likewise, Griesinger’s representation of Anne was a pitch-perfect depiction of a young girl with a devastating burden and a message of hope in the face of hatred.
Griesinger embodied an innocent girl with a wisdom that transcended age and circumstance, and an inner impulse to make a difference that seems close to the actor’s own heart. As an activist, a feminist, and an advocate for social justice, Griesinger recognizes elements of herself in the role. Perhaps that’s why she so successfully conveyed Anne’s twin emotions of hope and despair.
Alexandra Gellner, AFC’s associate director of education and an actor herself, added to the depth and breadth of the performance by opening and closing the play with some historical context about both Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank.
What we must do
I see a great deal of value in the work of AFC and in the efforts of schools such as Kellman Brown Academy, who are bringing lessons of activism to future generations, and I wish more organizations would follow their leads. I’m not sure whether or not we’ll ever stop breaking promises to each other, but if we have any hope of protecting freedom, liberty, and democracy, we must refuse complacency.
Mesmerized by the performances in Letters from Anne & Martin, I was excruciatingly aware that it is incumbent upon all of us to stand up for ourselves and each other.
What, When, Where
Letters from Anne & Martin. Adapted from the writings of Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and created by the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect. Presented on January 17, 2020, at the Kellman Brown Academy, 1007 Laurel Oak Rd., Voorhees, NJ. (212) 431-7993 or annefrank.com.