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In 'Speak Truth,' the focus is on the words, not the actors

June 10, 2005|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

When a group of well-known Hollywood actors comes together to speak the real-life words of human rights activists from around the world, you can bet the performance will be highly charged. But actress Alfre Woodard says the words would be just as powerful if they were read aloud by your mail carrier or maybe the woman next door.

"This isn't a piece that is acted or emoted; it is so powerful that you just read it, just say it," she says. "The words are so simple, so direct, so truthful and so brave that it does all the work."

Woodard is talking about "Speak Truth to Power: Voices Beyond the Dark," a play by Ariel Dorfman that will receive its Los Angeles premiere in a one-night performance Saturday at All Saints Church in Pasadena. She is among the actors invited to participate by "West Wing" star Bradley Whitford, who performs in and directs the sold-out show, a fundraiser for the Los Angeles-based Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace and the Speak Truth to Power, a division of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial.

Whitford has also tapped "West Wing" players Martin Sheen, Allison Janney, Melissa Fitzgerald, John Spencer and the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin, as well as Rocky Carroll, Hector Elizondo, America Ferrera and Whitford's wife, Jane Kaczmarek, to perform.

Less than a week before the performance, about half the cast gathered for rehearsal, which consisted of a read-through. But Whitford said that was enough. "My directorial take on it, if there is one to be had, is to keep it as simple as possible, so that the voices are heard and the focus is really on the human rights heroes and not on an overly ornate production," he says.

"There is this mystery: Why do some people stand up to this stuff; why do some people put their lives in danger when so many others don't? It is sort of the mystery of this source of courage not to accept the unacceptable."

Based on the book "Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World," with text by Kerry Kennedy and photos by Eddie Adams, Dorfman's play borrows from Kennedy's interviews with dozens of human rights leaders, including Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Baltasar Garzon of Spain, as well as Nobel Prize winners the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. All Saints Church also has mounted an exhibition of Adams' photos from the book.

Kennedy recalls being most impressed by the optimism of her interview subjects, an attitude she sees reflected in many of the quotes in the script. "I wasn't looking for victims, I was looking for heroes," she says. "There is one quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: 'We have a God who doesn't say, Ah, got you! No. God says get up, God dusts us off and says try again.' Another who comes to mind is Elie Wiesel, who survived the holocaust -- he says: 'My hope for the future is that your children don't have my past.' These two capture the spirit of all the human rights leaders."

First performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 2000, the staged reading was also presented to celebrate Martin Luther King weekend this year in Atlanta at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as co-pastor. Sheen was in that cast and lent his script to Whitford, who became hooked on the idea of a West Coast reading.

Woodard was part of the Kennedy Center production as well as the Atlanta cast but says that even without that connection, Whitford might have called on her to participate. "We all know who each other are, those who feel responsibility with our privilege," she says.

In a post-rehearsal conversation at the church, Whitford and Sheen agreed that though high-profile actors are often attacked for speaking out on social and political causes, they feel the same sense of responsibility that Woodard does.

"I have no interest in politics, I am not a politician," Sheen says. "I have an interest in the morals of my time, the command of conscience is what moves me to become involved."

Sheen recalls that during the Atlanta performance, the eyes of the audience were more often focused on the onstage photo of the human rights leader than on the actor reading the part.

"I think the point of this piece," he says, "is to raise your voice at injustice. It is incumbent on you. You only have one life -- that's all you get."

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