Wednesday, January 25, 2006
James Earl Jones delivers lecture on culture
By Rebecca Wyatt, OU Web Writer
More than 600 people crowded into Meadow Brook Theatre Tuesday night and hundreds of others filled the overflow area in the Pioneer Food Court to hear legendary actor James Earl Jones speak. There also were two special guests in the audience, two cousins of Jones’ who attended and graduated from OU years ago.
While it was his first visit to OU, Michigan is where Jones was raised. Born in Mississippi, Jones’ family moved to Dublin, Mich., when he was young. He attended the University of Michigan and performed in summer productions at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee.
“It’s been an interesting ride in this career,” said the 75-year-old actor. “I almost made the army my career, but I didn’t. Almost made the priesthood my career, but I didn’t. Almost made medicine my career, down in Ann Arbor, (but it was) hard.”
Jones’ success as an actor and fame for his commanding voice are ironic being that as a child he was nearly mute because of a stutter and only expressed himself through written word and poetry. He said he still hasn’t overcome the stutter.
Besides acting, Jones has many interests in his life and one of them was the topic of his lecture — cultures. As an actor in New York City, a critic once reviewed one of his plays and noted the actors didn’t evoke the culture of their characters, and ever since that time, Jones has had an interest in exploring the topic of his lecture, “Culture Quest: How Culture Affects Us and How We Affect Culture.”
“We tend to see the world and other cultures through the prism of our own culture,” Jones said.
He gave many examples of culture clashes and recalled news reports of a family visiting from Copenhagen, Denmark, who left their child on the street while they were inside a building and were arrested for child endangerment. Leaving a child unattended on the streets of New York is illegal, but leaving children on the streets in Denmark is acceptable.
“What is reasonable varies from culture to culture,” Jones said.
One dominant difference between cultures is language and Jones said it’s an important difference.
“I’ve always suspected that a distinctive culture cannot exist or persist without a distinctive language,” he said. “Some say religion defines a culture, but language is what passes it on.”
Jones said Americans are working through a culture minefield trying to define and explore what culture belongs to whom and that process should continue.
“You know the phrase ‘knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ I’ve always taken that to mean too little knowledge is a very dangerous thing,” he said. “Real knowledge should be enlightening, not depressing. If we're put off by the unpleasant facts of history, there is no way we can learn from it, and we are doomed to repeat it."
Jones said media influences cultures in ways that are noticed and ways that go unseen. At the age of 3, he saw his first movie and had never even seen a TV prior to this.
“There was a small crowd of strangers all watching the same thing,” he said. “Little did I know I was witnessing the beginning of cultural transformation.”
Jones said children often serve as culture brokers, interpreting the dominant culture for families who are more familiar with another. He said children “absorb culture as if by osmosis.”
“The lesson in this is that cultures can enrich and empower each other,” he said.
Jones said he doesn’t have the same desire to be in movies or plays as he once did, although, he has agreed to participate in a monodrama about Thurgood Marshall that currently is in the works.
Jones’ lecture, which was sponsored by the Student Life Lecture Board, is part of the African-American History Month activities taking place on campus.