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Anna Deavere Smith assumes a range of voices to 'break silence'

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Actor, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith Jan. 16 portrayed the musical voice of a native African, the anguished tone of a victimized Korean grocer, and other characters with a message before an audience that filled Hill Auditorium for the 19th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium Memorial Lecture.

"We should follow Dr. King's dream, but we shouldn't get too dreamy," Smith urged. "We should be bringing it alive.
Anna Deavere Smith, who delivered the MLK Memorial Lecture as part of the University's King celebration, praised U-M for its affirmative action commitment. (Photo by Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services)

"Let's not be so fuddy-duddy about being so smart that we take the feeling out of what we're doing here," said Smith, who has appeared on TV's "The West Wing."

"I must say I am so proud to be here because of what you have done for affirmative action," Smith told the crowd that included President Mary Sue Coleman, Regents Kathrine E. White and Rebecca McGowan, administrators, staff, students and visitors.

Earlier, on this occasion of the official King holiday, Coleman told the audience, "His work remains unfinished."

"I would be remiss if on this great day I did not share my views about the so-called Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (the anti-affirmative action ballot measure). I'll be blunt: I believe it is wrong-headed," Coleman said. "It will turn our state in the wrong direction, at a time when we desperately need to recast our economy and the people who will shape it. I also believe the political debate surrounding this referendum will polarize our communities when our efforts should be focused on constructive ways to build broad diversity within the guidelines outlined by the U.S. Supreme Court."

The University president praised event organizers for this year's symposium theme, "a time to break silence."

"For our University to move forward and continue to build a community that embraces all people, we must expose the darkness of bigotry. Silence is not an option," Coleman said. "I urge you to come forward when you see or hear an act of intolerance. Go to the place in the University where you feel most safe. Talk to your roommate or a professor. Contact MESA (Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs) or LGBTA (Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender Affairs). Speak to a dean or a police officer. Tell me."

Smith, a faculty member in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, has acted in film and stage productions ranging from "The American President" to "Rent," and has drawn praise for her work as a playwright and for creating a form of theater that combines social commentary and journalism.

"I'm so pleased you're talking about breaking the silence," Smith said, before opening a series of monologues. In the first she took on the personality of a native African who stressed the value of working together by using a damaged pot as a metaphor. "There are many pots with holes," Smith said, evoking the African's delivery. "Contribute just one finger to block the hole."

Smith acted the parts of African American author James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead, as recorded on a debate she once heard on a vinyl record. "I'm not at home here; I never will be, never, never, never," said Smith, imitating Baldwin's smooth, even responses to Mead's explosive questions.

"Questions, questions; we shouldn't be afraid of questions. We should be disciplined about King's message. His dream," Smith said.

She portrayed Ms. Young-Soon Han, a Korean shopkeeper who cries out for justice and respect for King's commitment to non-violence, after her shop was destroyed by rioters following the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

"We need more argument in culture let alone in the University," Smith said. "Argument is not about hollering and screaming and seeing who is cuter and who has the best opinions; argument is about working together to find another truth."

She closed the lecture, asking, "What would Martin Luther King do about (Hurricane) Katrina?"

Coleman in her remarks recalled the actions of two U-M alumni. The first was Lyman Johnson, an African American who in 1948 applied to the University of Kentucky to seek a doctorate degree, only to be told "he could find a 'separate but equal' education up the road at the all-black Kentucky State College." Johnson went to court and became the first African American to attend the University of Kentucky.

Coleman also recalled U-M graduate Walter Bergman, a son of Swedish immigrants, who was 61 in 1961 when he joined the Freedom Riders—the first people to test the integration of interstate public facilities in the South.

"At a rest stop in Anniston, Alabama, Walter Bergman's bus was attacked by a group of white men," Coleman recalled. "He was knocked to the ground, brutally beaten, and repeatedly kicked in the head. But he did not remain silent. Years later, he forced the FBI to admit it knew of the attacks in advance, and took no action to stop the assault or to protect the Freedom Riders.

"I do not know if Lyman Johnson and Walter Bergman ever crossed paths, or if they ever compared their monumental stories of struggle and sacrifice. What I do know is they were both alumni of this great University, and we should forever be grateful for, and inspired by, their courage, their leadership and their commitment to speaking out for equality," Coleman said.

"They found it within themselves to break the silence of injustice, and all of our lives are better for it."

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