Hannah Vaughn plays the role of Anne Frank, and Phillip Burke is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Letters from Anne & Martin, a new stage production co-sponsored by The Anne Frank Center USA and BMCC, and presented recently in BMCC’s Richard Harris Terrace.
“I’m an actor, primarily,” says Vaughn, who also directed the production and assembled the script from two well known texts: The Diary of Anne Frank and Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
“It was like a puzzle, putting the excerpts together,” she says.
Philip Burke, who plays the role of Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “being part of this production made me realize there are a lot of universal themes in the messages of Anne Frank and Martin Luther King.”
As Vaughn put it, “Anne Frank’s writing is reflective, in that she focuses on what will come to pass after the war is over. Dr. King on the other hand, was able to go out in the world and enact change. But they both have a very determined sense of hope.”
“A unique way to touch people”
An audience of over 50 BMCC students, faculty and staff gathered for the performance, and were welcomed by BMCC VP of Student Affairs, Marva Craig.
“It’s always a pleasure to invite our neighbors and fellow New Yorkers to collaborate with us, as we listen to some voices of the past, present and future,” she said. “Anne Frank and Martin Luther King will always be with us because of what they have said and done.”
“This is our first collaboration with a college,” said Yvonne Simmons, Executive Director of The Anne Frank Center. “Our mission is to teach young audiences about the consequences of intolerance.”
Deborah Chapin, co-chair of The Center’s board of directors, spoke of “great substantive connections between Anne Frank’s and Martin Luther King’s enduring message,” and Center board member Suzanne Waltman commented that “the combination of having a literary and historical and moral component is a unique way to touch people.”
“You be the judge.”
Robert Levin, Director of Education at The Anne Frank Center, introduced the play, reminding the audience that Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King “are two legendary voices for peace and tolerance,” and that Anne Frank, who was among millions of Jews and other groups persecuted in Europe before and during World War II, went into hiding with her family at age 11, in 1942.
In that tiny attic crowded with two families, “Anne’s greatest companion was her diary,” he said, adding that it became “one of the most widely read books in the world, translated into 80 languages, and a source of comfort for millions.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., said Levin, “was a giant among leaders in American history,” and is known for leading the American civil rights movement.
“He was arrested many times, and his home was bombed,” Levin said. “Nevertheless, he advocated non-violent protest, and by age 35, was the youngest man to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. He gave over 2,500 speeches, and his Letter from Birmingham Jail has become a manifesto for the civil rights movement.”
The play, Levin said, would feature, “Anne Frank, a 14-year-old girl, and Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the world’s greatest orators. Two very different voices—but what of their message? You be the judge.”
A message of tolerance, in two voices
Hannah Vaughn as Anne Frank opened the play with the diary’s famous salutation: “Dear Kitty,” bringing to life the words of a teenage girl whose world spirals into a nightmare of genocide, on a scale of millions.
“We’re surrounded by darkness and danger,” the character Anne says, and asserts that Hitler’s Nazi’s “are the cruelest monsters that stalk the earth.”
Her message is delivered in tandem with that of Dr. King, who, played by Phillip Burke, refers to “the appalling silence of the ‘good people’,” in troubled times leading to the American Civil Rights Movement, and that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Behind the two speakers, historic photos were projected onto a large screen: police aiming fire hoses at unarmed protestors, and in a grainy black-and-white image recalling the horror of lynching in the American South, Hitler’s victims are hanging by their necks, in a group execution.
The play closes with Anne Frank’s often-quoted optimism, even more poignant in light of her own death in a concentration camp: “In spite of everything, I believe people are truly good at heart.”
A cry for freedom
In a Q&A session after the performance, one BMCC student commented on the unexpected pairing of Dr. King and Anne Frank, “a Christian and a Jew, and their two faces so different. But their cry for freedom spanned their differences. You touched me, with your performance. You did effectively communicate to me the spirit of Anne Frank and Dr. King.”
Another student said, “I praise Anne Frank for making her story known,” and his classmate noted, “It’s one thing to read the diary of Anne Frank, and another to hear it performed live.”
Yvonne Simmons, Executive Director of The Anne Frank Center, extended a special invitation to BMCC students: “We will waive admission if you want to visit The Anne Frank Center,” she said, and noted that The Center is just a couple blocks from BMCC’s Fiterman Hall, up the hill on Park Place.
Marva Craig closed the event. “Just as Anne Frank’s voice went beyond the walls of that tiny house where they hid during the war,” she said, “if you students continue to write and speak out, your message will be out there, too. Your voices will go beyond these walls.”