A Voice for the Voiceless
From Annulla to The Pianist, Emily Mann remembers the past to protect the future.
By Megan Murphy, Literary Manager, Wolk Transfer Company
At its core, Theater of Testimony allows humanity to bear witness to the “walking wounded,” or events and voices that have been historically sidelined or silenced. This is in no small part because playwright, director, and all-around rebel artist Emily Mann first pioneered the form in response to pivotal mass movements of the 1960s and 70s. As a woman, a Jewish woman, Emily understood the violence of erasure from an early age.
As a “daughter of history,” Emily also knew that whatever her path, she must make a contribution in the world. Her father Arthur Mann was not only a leading scholar and authority on reform politics in the U.S. alongside John Hope Franklin, but he was also a soldier in the 4th Armored Division who helped liberate the first German concentration camp in 1945. Although Emily would not learn of her father’s heroism at Buchenwald until decades later, she had always known her father’s passion for organized thought. Whether in argument or agreement, Arthur would always ask Emily to tell him the facts. Emily, however, often felt a frustration shared by many today: she could only remember the feeling. Emily would eventually discover a channel through the reductive dangers of human biases though, one through which she could harmonize fact and feeling both.
Emily’s “theater of the real” navigates humanity with nuance. Her groundbreaking plays center some of history’s most sensitive and volatile circumstances, such as the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of Harvey Milk, to better understand these traumas and why they have been sanitized or erased from our collective memory.
Emily’s body of work drives the question of her first play forward: how can people change if they don’t know what happened? In between semesters of her first year at Harvard, Emily found someone she believed would make a deserving dramatic subject in her father’s Holocaust oral history files. Though Emily sought permission to use the survivor’s story in her playwriting class, Arthur was adamant that it was not Emily’s to share. Instead, Emily would find her own subject to interview years later while on a trip to find her mother’s mother’s village, Ostrolenka, in Poland.
Her grandmother’s family had been annihilated, completely wiped out by the Nazis in Ostrolenka during World War II. While there were no records, no trace of Emily’s family left, her friend Irene had an aunt living in London who could speak to the horrors of the Nazis firsthand.
Annulla Allen became the subject of Emily’s first produced play, and an enduring example of Emily’s belief that people living on the parameters of history are the most worthy witnesses. On its surface, Annulla, an Autobiography explores what can happen when people are allowed to express through murder what they don’t understand, as well as how one Viennese Jew miraculously survived the genocide by passing for Aryan. Yet, Annulla tells Emily from the beginning, “it is not me who is interesting, it is my play.”
Writing is an act of resistance for Emily and Annulla both. Though she admits it is disorganized and incomplete, Annulla believes her play is the answer to human nature’s passive indifference towards man’s barbarism. She argues that if women with their hearts would start thinking, war would cease. However, because women are not acting, atrocities continue. Annulla stands up though when an officer stops her at the Italian border because she is carrying her typewriter. Annulla resists, warning the officer to “leave me alone. I’m writing a novel.” Stopped once again while boarding a boat to England, Annulla throws her typewriter at the officer in a rage. Propelled by her creative conviction, Annulla evades the death camps, and reaches England. Though constant interruptions plague Annulla’s progress as a writer, her example of rebellious resilience serves as a throughline throughout Emily’s own canon of work.
And Emily’s most recent produced work, Gloria: A Life, can be said to realize the global matriarchy Annulla envisioned.
In Emily’s latest adaptation The Pianist, a Play with Music, she once again focuses on a witness to the Holocaust. Emily began adapting Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945 six years ago. Though she initially doubted whether the world needed another Holocaust play, the deadly events of the 2017 “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville, where emboldened white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us,” solidified that antisemitism still opened the gateways to authoritarianism. Emily’s adaptation of The Pianist not only demonstrates how quickly fascism takes hold once a society loses respect for democratic thought and education, but how one man’s artistry changed hearts, minds, and actions that saved his life.
Unlike Annulla, Wladek and his family could not pass for Aryan as Polish Jews. When the Germans occupied Warsaw in 1939 and forced all Jews into the Warsaw ghetto by 1940, Wladek could not escape. The Nazis exterminated Wladek’s entire family at Treblinka, and though the pianist would suffer severe starvation, jaundice, and debilitating guilt during his years in hiding, his music saved him once more when he met German Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. Though they lived drastically different experiences during the Holocaust, both Annulla and Wladek survived the genocide through their conviction that when an artist stops creating, they stop living.
The concept of exposure and education through presentations of family, diversity, and resistance not only infuse Emily’s seven original plays and seven adaptations, but they are also pillars of the regional theater movement itself. In 1990, Emily was one of five women to fill Artistic Director positions in America’s flagship regional theaters. Yet, by 1991, only Emily was left standing. The McCarter Theater lost half of its subscribers in her first season as Artistic Director, but soon flourished—and for thirty years, Emily managed to bring in new audiences with greater diversity through productions like Betsey Brown; Greensboro: A Requiem; and Having Our Say. The McCarter’s programming not only investigated how the classic repertory was in conversation with new work but defined itself through plays by and about women and people of color. Emily’s institutional efforts were honored with the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater; and Emily herself, a Theater Hall of Fame inductee, has become a certified classic in her own lifetime, a rarity in true form.
More than any other American playwright of our time, Emily has written plays that capture the psychic wellbeing and sanity of a society. While civilizations shed their politics and theologies, the art that a civilization produces persists as a record of its people. It is incumbent on all of us to preserve the legacy of artists like Wladek, and like Emily, because that is the record of human feeling, thought, and experience. If the theater is to retake its rightful place in the national conversation to combat a rising autocracy and white supremacist movement that walks hand in hand with misogyny, Emily Mann’s theater of testimony has the singular political potency and influence to be a voice for the voiceless, and a voice of reason.