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Friday, April 19, 2024

‘The answer is listening’: Actress, writer Anna Deavere Smith headlines MLK Symposium

The event entered its sixth year of celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy with a speech by actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith.

Actress, activist and writer Anna Deavere Smith visited Memorial Union Wednesday as the guest speaker at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s annual MLK Symposium. 

The event, now in its sixth year, is a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work, continuing his legacy of social justice, civil rights and advocacy.

Anna Deavere Smith was invited to perform her own interpretations of MLK’s life and legacy, reflecting on his battle for civil rights and calling attention to the battle that still persists today.

Smith, a well-known playwright, performed dramatic monologues and a short play, combining historical anecdotes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s life with her own experiences in activism. In doing so, Smith explored America’s history of racial prejudice.

Smith is a celebrated actress with many accolades, best known for her work in “The West Wing,” “Blackish” and Netflix’s “Inventing Anna.” Her personal work combines artistry and activism into one, creating performances based on real-life experiences and conversations.

Smith said her artistry is inspired not only by her talent, but the power of the human experience. Smith encourages discourse in her work and said her method involves visiting people from various backgrounds and encouraging open dialogue to gain a deeper understanding of American cultures and values.

“I think really the answer is listening, really well. Hear differently. See differently. To develop a voice, you have to have an ear,” Smith said.

Smith’s work combining drama with real-life situations of social injustice and the experiences of American people has received Tony Award nominations, Pulitzer Prize nominations and other awards. 

Smith’s main project, a series of plays entitled “On the Road: A Search for American Character,”  represents over 25 years of exploration and insight into American identity and culture. 

Smith’s play “Notes from the Field,” a part of her series, depicts stories of police brutality and captures the horrors of the school-to-prison pipeline in the United States. Many of her works discuss racial inequality and the effects of racial prejudice on individuals and communities all across the United States. 

Inspired by a quote from her grandfather, Smith said she emulates various perspectives of American people from different racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds in her work. 

“I became very interested in individual human speech and how people express themselves,” Smith said. “My grandfather had said ‘If you say a word often enough it becomes you.’ That became the mission of my work. That saying became my methodology.” 

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At the MLK Symposium, Smith performed a powerful retelling of King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in which King begged the question, “What kind of extremist will you be?” Smith mirrored King’s words in her own writing, asking audiences what sacrifices they were willing to make in the name of preserving justice. 

Smith also gave Madison a taste of her work with a reenactment of an interview with renowned lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, titled “Injury.” 

The performance provided insight into an intimate conversation Smith had with Stevenson, which she later reproduced in her one-woman show, acting as Stevenson himself. Her evocative performance highlighted America’s history of lynching and provided an anecdotal story from Stevenson himself as he attempted to save a prisoner from unlawful execution. Smith’s work earned a standing ovation from the audience at Memorial Union. 

With her final words, Smith recounted King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and challenged viewers to take part in his tradition of resistance.

“It wasn’t a promise. There was no guarantee. It was an inspiration. It’s up to us to magnify the flame and to shine the light,” Smith said. “As Dr. King repeated many times on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, now is the time.” 

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