Anna Deavere Smith brings valuable perspective to Charlotte’s Gantt Symposium

A 2016 Gantt Symposium Preview 

12376716_10207620439736425_7064320951751887353_n By Stephanie Harris

September 20, 2016

This year’s Gantt Symposium takes place on September 22nd with guest speaker Anna Deavere Smith.

For the last few years, the Gantt Symposium has welcomed notable speakers, including literary critic and historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., rapper and philanthropist Common, and philosopher and social activist Dr. Cornel West. This year’s addition of Smith helps continue the tradition of shining the spotlight on the depth of African-American intellectual artistry in America.

Rapper and philanthropist, Common speaking at Gantt Symposium 2014. Photo by Jennifer Hall

Since its dedication and opening as the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, formerly the Afro-American Cultural Center established circa 1976, the center has celebrated and presented art, history and culture of African-Americans. Its mission is to “ … ignite engagement and conversations that inspire, empower and enlighten all.”

Smith’s work falls right in line with the Gantt Center’s mission. For decades, she has crossed the country interviewing individuals, documenting their stories, and learning more about their experiences. But, unlike traditional journalists or researchers, her work doesn’t stop there – she takes her work beyond observing and into “becoming.”

This method of taking on her interviewees’ personalities, voices, gestures – their overall way of being in the world – and sharing them on stage with her audiences has earned Smith credit for creating a new form of theater, now called documentary theater.

Studying people from all walks of life, sometimes during or after political or civil unrest, gives Smith, and subsequently her audiences, insight to how different people can experience the same event.

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“I don’t know that I have learned anything about the human condition,” Smith said.

“I have only learned that people have magnificent ways of communicating and very original ways of using language and gesture to make themselves evident in the world.”

With her latest project, The Pipeline Project, Smith explores the lack of opportunity for young people who live in poverty, and how their circumstances may lay out a path to the criminal justice system. The Pipeline Project led her just across the state line to South Carolina, a state with a deep history of civil and educational rights inequalities, for research.

“I went to South Carolina because of the ‘corridor of shame’ – an area with poor schools. Also, I went there because of the events at Spring Valley High school and at Mother Emanuel. South Carolina is also the site of the first school desegregation case: Briggs vs. Elliot. People think it’s Brown vs. Board of Ed. But Briggs was the first case, and it became a part of the Brown case.”

Audiences may be surprised at the wide range of characters that Smith portrays on stage. She doesn’t choose only those individuals who typical audiences may love, she sheds light on Americans who may have perpetrated crimes or who may not embrace politically correct views. In her work, every person’s voice has the right to be heard.

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How will her dedication to exploring all edges of society, all angles of relevant issues and topics show up on stage during this presidential election year? Will the current state of the presidential race inform which characters she’ll choose to pull out of her hat and place onstage during the Gantt Symposium?

The simple answer is no.

Smith explains, “I think people are really considering what they want this country to be and to stand for. The race did not affect my choices of characters, but I expect that audiences come with very strong feelings about the direction they want the country to pursue. Is this a ‘we the people’ country or not?”

Regardless of the individuals she chooses to embody on stage on Thursday, Smith’s way of presenting multiple perspectives is sure to leave her audiences in a state of reflection and, maybe even, acceptance.

Anna Deavere Smith will be the featured speaker and performer at the 2016 Gantt Symposium on Thursday, September 22. 

*It was announced the 2016 Gantt Symposium has been cancelled*

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More on Anna Deavere Smith from PBS NewsHour

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