Star actress takes the stage to talk about finding grace

By: Roger Hoke – News Editor

Actress, activist and professor Anna Deavere Smith took the stage Saturday evening as the final guest speaker of the University of Dayton’s Perspectives on Peace Speaker Series.

Smith was a cast member on shows such as “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie,” according to IMDb. She has also starred on the big screen in films such as “The American President” (1995) and “Philadelphia” (1993). However, Smith didn’t hit the stage at UD to potray a role or direct a show.

Smith focused her speech on issues in modern communities, including diversity problems.

Smith said her speech was going to be mostly aimed at the subject of “grace,” and her search to figure out exactly what grace is. She also wanted to point out how this search for grace could lead us to figure out new ways to resolve conflicts.

“I decided I wanted to know about grace, so I talked to a Christian preacher, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk,” Smith said.

Smith’s approach to giving speeches involves many different theater techniques to prove her point. She used many different voices and dialects to tell her stories to the fullest potential. Smith instructed the audience to sing along to the tune of “Amazing Grace” before stating that she used the lyrics to motivate herself in her quest for grace.

Smith told the story of an African-American preacher who also happened to be a professor at Harvard University in the mid-20th century. She shared the story of how the man found different views on what grace was from different demographics of his students. White males, the majority of students at Harvard during this period, could not find grace to be anything similar to that of the preacher.

Smith also believes that the term grace is inherently different amongst believers of different religions.

“I believe that the way Christians use the word grace is used in a sense of a special intervention by God into human affairs,” Smith said. “That phenomenon is recognized in Islam, we have a number of words to describe God’s self-disclosure.”

Smith then shared the Islamic call to prayer as a prime example of grace.

“Have you ever heard the call to prayer?” Smith said. “Isn’t the call to prayer magical? The fact that the call to prayer has such compelling power to anybody who hears it is an act of grace.”

Smith shared the piece “Brother” by Rep. John Lewis. The literature follows the congressman through the high time of civil rights in Alabama during the 1960s. The young congressman was given a police badge from the chief of police in the town at a church meeting. The two men, white and black, cried together. Smith believes that this moment was an act of grace.

Smith followed up with her mention of the preacher, rabbi and the monk near the end of her speech.

“The only whole heart is a broken one, the kind of cracked that lets light in,” Smith quoted the rabbi.

This parable was Smith’s iteration on what grace is in the Jewish faith.

Smith also shared a few thoughts on global and local conflict in the modern world to end the speech.

“That’s the way the world is now. There is no such thing as a local conflict,” Smith said. “And every local conflict threatens to engulf us all, and in some ways that might be our best hope – the recognition that we are really are in it together.”