Two legendary African American performers are in our midst this week, both renowned for demonstrating how a single individual standing on stage can make a difference—moving people to think about something larger than themselves in similar but very different ways.

Dick Gregory, who blazed the trail for Richard Pryor, blew the lid off my mind decades ago when he came to my college campus and talked about racism. Beginning in the early ‘60s, a time when he says “there wasn’t a healthy race joke in America,” this pioneer comedian-activist bravely tackled issues others were avoiding altogether. He disarmed audiences with a quick, instinctive wit and non-threatening humor, suggesting non-violent solutions to problems.

Gregory, who was recently honored with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame, will keynote the 4th Annual Comics Rock Convention luncheon on Apr. 25 at Mavericks Flat (4225 Crenshaw, Los Angeles), an event open to the public. The convention itself has become a “must attend” for aspiring comedians, actors and producers to network and showcase their talents.

If any actor has succeeded in creating their own form of theatre in recent years—and re-energizing the world of solo performance—it is Anna Deavere Smith. Her stunning one-woman documentaries, based on hundreds of interviews with persons of every ethnicity from all walks of life, have turned the theatre into a rare community forum for dialogue of the kind that quietly moves mountains.

Smith is back at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica in a program radically different from her previous So Cal offering, “Let Me Down Easy,” which explored the health care crisis. The highlight of “Never Givin’ Up” (through Apr. 26) is a passionate reading of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but Smith also brings to the stage several personalities vividly recreated from her interviews, including one from “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” her monumental portrait of the city in the wake of the Rodney King beating.

Accompanying Smith are violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Anne Epperson, who perform selections from Bach, Dvorak, Philip Glass and others. If you’re new to The Broad, the Santa Monica College performing arts venue itself is pretty spectacular. Upcoming: Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonao (May 16) and Broadway performer Sutton Foster (Jun. 14).

Author: Jordan R. Young

Jordan R. Young is a journalist, show business historian, playwright and theatre critic. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine, Westways, AAA Tour Books, and The People’s Almanac.