Listening is a Catalyst for Change, United Methodist Women Learn; Latin 'Orquesta Candela Rocks House with Multicultural Melodies'
by Yvette Moore
Anaheim, CA, May 6, 2006- Actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith used gifts of listening and storytelling to nudge nearly 7,000 United Methodist Women to do even more for the cause of justice in the world.
Ms. Smith's dramatic and spell-binding representations of stories she has gathered during more than two decades of advocacy demonstrates the need for people to simply begin talking to one another to better understand problems and the world.
Her one-woman show during Friday evening's session was timely for an organization which has focused on justice issues around the globe.
The dramatic vignettes were based on the voices and stories of thousands of people she's interviewed for decades. Better understanding through listening was the common thread of her stories. When we listen, we understand, and when we understand, we can free ourselves from the things that bind us.
Ms. Smith pulled pieces from her voices of people touched directly by racially charged incidents in Los Angeles, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y., after the Los Angeles and Brooklyn-Crown Heights racial riots. She examined the civil unrest after police acquittals in the Rodney King beating and the tensions between Blacks and Hasidic Jews in New York.
Ms. Smith researched the two plays by traveling to the communities to talk and listen to people, then using their words to transform herself into characters for stage.
She also shared vignettes from her new one-woman drama regarding health as she explored the voice of a woman imprisoned in Baltimore. She was married to an abusive man, who beat her young daughter to death, then asked for help in covering up the incident. She spoke about the concepts of power, desperation, and what keeps some people bound and oppressed.
Attending a week-long integrated denominational youth meeting one summer had a great impact on Ms. Smith, who has United Methodism at her roots.
"I'd gone to school in integrated situations, but my church in Baltimore was all black," she said. "This was a different idea about my religious experience, living with and being with Whites in this environment, which was intimate, relating to God and people who were mentoring me spiritually."
Contemporary-language versions of the Bible were used at the meeting along with interactive workshops that encouraged participants to talk and listen.
"It was a powerful time," she said. "The church was having to listen differently. The United Methodist Church knew it had to find new ways to reach out to what its future was going to be."
These and other experiences helped Ms. Smith understand as a young artist that she couldn't develop the voice she needed for her craft without first developing an ear, she said.
Ms. Smith has traveled to Louisiana twice since Hurricane Katrina to listen to the stories of the people who survived the storm. One story she explored came in the voice of a woman who became a leader in the Motel 6, where she sought shelter. Her story personified the desperation of the children who'd lost everything, were deemed troublemakers, and about which no one seemed to remember.
She listened to people at Charity Hospital in Baton Rogue; people who lost their homes; a trumpet player; and prisoners, who after the storm had to swim to the buses that evacuated them to prisons as far away as Florida.
"When I was in New Orleans, many people who wept while I interviewed them said, 'that's the first time I cried,'" Ms. Smith said. "To me, that's the biggest compliment. If you're in the presence of a person who is really listening to you, you can hear yourself in a way that you haven't before. If I've done that properly, and people experience themselves when they're talking to me, then the language they have on my tape recorder has them in it. It is in my best interest to get out of the way, to let them really be themselves; not to say what they 'should' say. And let them know that that's just fine. In fact, it's perfect."
Preceding Ms. Smith's performance, the Los Angeles-based Orquesta Candela performed as part of an effort to introduce the gathering to the diversity of its organization and the hosting city.
Candela means fire. That's the energy Orquesta Candela, a Latin Christian band, brought to the performance.
"We're going to rock the house," said Steve Morales, leader of the Los Angeles-based band, which features salsa and meringue rhythms behind a Christian message of love, hope and peace performed in English and Spanish. "It's a blessing to be at Assembly."
Formed in 2000 with four players, Orquesta Candela has grown, adding 10 performers and the music from their respective cultures and homelands. Band members are from Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and the United States.
"Emotionally, spiritually, somehow God put us all together," said lead singer Rosemary Perich. "We're a spiritual family. Now we are able to transmit love through our music. Whether it be for young people or older people, our message is: If you have talents, use them for God."
The Women's Division represents United Methodist Women, an organization of nearly one-million members, whose purpose is to foster spiritual growth, develop leaders and advocate for justice. Members raise close to $25 million a year for programs and projects related to women, children and youth in the United States and in more than 100 countries around the world.