"We should constantly examine our own complacency in the world around us, and look for pragmatic ways to create a better future," said actor and activist Jeffery Wright on Thursday.
Wright sat in conversation with Taj Frazier, the director of the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at USC Annenberg. Wright spoke of his experience as an activist and an artist to a packed crowd of USC students and faculty in the Annenberg Forum.
Wright is a pragmatic man both intrigued by and exhausted with the complacency of the American public. Much of his work dwells on this topic, from his breakout role in the 1993 Tony-Award winning play "Angels in America" to his most recent role as a man in the final weeks of his 24-year prison sentence in HBO's "O.G." As demonstrated by his discussion on Thursday, he understands what is it to act as an outsider, someone ignored or misunderstood by the general populace.
Every project Wright has been a part of is a mélange of art and politics, be it the 1996 film "Basquiat" or the 2018 documentary "We Are Not Done Yet." This is not a fact that is lost on him. For Wright, the two subjects are inexorable, and it is when they are combined that he found, in his words, "moments where I knew I was exactly where I was meant to be."
From a young age, Wright was exposed to the theatrical world. His mother would take him to dozens of local theatrical productions as a child, but he didn't perform until he was a student at Amherst College. Even then, Wright considered himself more of a politician than a performer. Speaking of his hometown, Wright wryly stated that "when you're born in D.C., the doctor takes you out of the womb, slaps your ass and asks you what your political affiliation is."
It wasn't until the 1993 Broadway production of "Angels in America" that Wright was fully infected by the acting bug in what he described as a storytelling infection that "was slow to take hold." He described the production as a "crossroads" of his interest in politics and storytelling.
"This role on Broadway was this marriage, this perfect, beautiful, incredibly eloquent, insightful and much-needed marriage of those two things," Wright said.
He now appears in the Emmy-award winning HBO program "Westworld." He described it as a "multifaceted reflective mirror," that helps its audience examine their own complacency in their daily lives.
"The robots [in the show] are all of us," Wright illustrated. He further suggested that the convergence of science fiction and western genres asks audiences, "whether [or not] we're satisfied in the confines in which we find ourselves."
Wright encouraged the audience to ask this question themselves, "who is determining those confines? What social forces, what institutional forces, what political forces are dictating those confines?"
Wright left the audience of students with an impassioned request that echoed his own personal history of ambition and empathy, "do what you have to do, don't listen to anyone. Including me."
Wright visited USC as part Annenberg-HBO Diverse Voices Series, a series dedicated to discussing issues related to diversity and activism within the entertainment industry. Previous guests of the forum include Anna Deavere Smith and Issa Rae.
Correction: This article was updated to fix the spelling of Jeffrey Wright’s name.