Human expression and activism are inevitably intertwined, but religious beliefs can also enhance the importance of art. Actor Harry Lennix and Associate Professor of Music Theory Dwight Andrews discussed the intersection of spirituality, art and social justice March 25 at Ackerman Hall in the Michael C. Carlos Museum. Lennix is known for his Shakespearean roles, such as Aaron in the film Titus and King Henry IV in H4, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Part 1 and Henry IV: Part 2. He currently plays Harold Cooper in the television series The Blacklist.
As part of Emory’s Social Justice Week, Lennix and Andrews, who is also Senior Minister of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Atlanta, shared their perspectives on black religious art and experiences in America. Lennix showed the audience excerpts of his unreleased film, Revival: The Experience, an interpretation of the Book of John from the Bible. Revival: The Experience retells the story through a predominantly black cast, just as his previous film H4 does, as part of his mission to produce more black religious entertainment.
The Emory Wheel interviewed Lennix following the event. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Naomi Keusch Baker, The Emory Wheel: How did you first get into Shakespearean acting? What inspired you?
Harry Lennix: The first Shakespeare play I ever read was Julius Caesar, and I understood it. I think I was a sophomore in high school when we read it. I heard some of those lines, such a famous play with “et tu Brute,” and I became fascinated, even when I wasn’t interested in becoming an actor, with his language, and how this gentleman could write verse and all these things. So that was my first real interest in it and then I didn’t really engage with it again until college. We had an entire year of Shakespeare, and after reading a few of his plays as a freshman I was [performing] Shakespeare because I had a deep voice and the directors were very interested in using me. I was considered very castable so that’s how that started.
EW: How have your experiences in Shakespearean roles contributed to your portrayal of modern roles?
HL: I don’t know that they do. I say to a certain degree my demeanor, my bearing as an actor is based largely in my stage work so I don’t think that it’s possible to separate the sort of Shakespearean training. I can’t separate my background and training from current [roles].
EW: Since you’re a cofounder of a production company, how do you use your influential position to shape the world and press for social justice?
HL: The work itself is more important [than] my position. The function of the work is to draw attention to critical matters whether [they] be faith, politics or some combination of those two things. In the case of H4, these were deeply religious people, Catholic people, who were about to go off on crusades. […] But I don’t think that my being a producer yet has had any kind of impact on social justice. Me being Harry Lennix and a recognizable face from Chicago who has a certain degree of what I call “a license to operate” in ethnic communities, particularly black and Latin communities, but [also] even [in] Chicago places that are Irish, Mexican [or] Polish, because I’m from there. Because I have a deep blue-collared background I think people, when they see or hear me, realize that I’m from a similar background and so [my identity matters] more than what I do for a living, I think it’s who I am as a person that lets people believe that I’m concerned about the things that they’re concerned about, which I am.
EW: Do you regularly talk about the issues you discussed today with your friends, family and coworkers? How do they usually react?
HL: Generally speaking, most of the people that I engage with on a daily basis agree, [but] not always. My wife has voted for people I haven’t voted for and so forth. She’s interested in things that are as important to her from a social justice standpoint. For example, young girls who are in the sex trade, sexually exploited workers and so forth, commercialized trafficking of women. I think that something she’s deeply involved with. She’s the treasurer of such an organization and I try to support that with her, and she certainly has been supportive of the things I’m interested in. My brother Michael was in law enforcement for 30 years and lots of my friends are in law enforcement, so we don’t always [end] up agreeing on things. If a cop is killing somebody, what [is] the due process? My brother doesn’t like cops that are bad either; he probably dislikes them more than I do, but I don’t think there’s animosity between anyone I’m talking to even if they’re not in the same political bent because we can usually find something to agree on. Some things are pretty clear cut.
EW: So you’re a big proponent of engaging in discussion.
HL: Yes, absolutely. I like talking to people who disagree with me.
EW: Do you have any advice to college students who either through art or some other way want to support a movement?
HL: This is something that has been going on for a really long time. When I was in college, divesting in companies that did business in South Africa was a big cause. Campus issues involving race, marriage, there was a lot of that going on. I think that it’s difficult for someone in my generation to give advice to this generation, millennials, whatever it is this generation is called. I don’t think they’re millennials, something else. I think that most of it has to involve organizing around social media because that’s the chief tool, communication. Be in touch with each other; movements can happen spontaneously, but I think that art can be the same thing. We can have, art is a way for people to process what’s going on politically, religiously [and] culturally. Art is a kind of beautiful filter, like a coffee filter. You can get the rich coffee and the grinds, and I think you can distill it to a point where you can demonstrate what a desired outcome is through picture or through presentation even if it’s nonfiction. So I think that being able to make small independent movies, shorts, public service announcements, drawing attention to matters, where even if it’s not you providing the content, that something they can focus on is young people and draw attention where it has been displayed and demonstrated. These are powerful, powerful tools that we’re mostly now using for personal satisfaction and distraction but I think it can be used for good through social media.