Jeffrey Wright, star of "Westworld," also an Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe winner (for the stage and TV versions of "Angels in America"), has had a career that spans decades. Lesser known is the other career. He's an activist, with a particular interest in what's called "resource-related" conflicts, notably in Sierra Leone, and more recently, in Veterans Affairs. Thursday he appears in "We Are Not Done Yet" (8 p.m. on HBO) — which he also produces — a short film about 10 veterans struggling with PTSD who create a poetry performance led by poet Seema Reza (also chair of Community Building Art Works, which uses the arts to connect veterans with their communities), in which they fuse their pain to words. This culminates in a staging at Lansburgh Theatre, in Wright's hometown of Washington, D.C. It's a moving, raw film about trauma, and the power of art to heal.
I spoke earlier this week with Wright. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How did all this come together?
I had been doing a reading with a group called Theater of War, co-founded by [writer] Bryan Doerries [and Phyllis Kaufman, in 2009]. It uses Greek tragedy as a platform for conversations around PTSD in the military community. … I [later] read the role of [Sophocles'] Ajax, and the idea, or rather Bryan's argument, is that this is the story of a warrior who comes home and has this psychotic episode, and that the Greeks had given thought to this, and were shining a light on the impact of the experience of war. We did one of these readings down in D.C., and afterward a representative for the Department of Defense who I spoke with asked if there was more I might be able to do.
This is obviously emotional for you, too.
Just weeks before [the performance] I had been in Colorado, coming home from a ski trip with my kids, and was at this small rural airport. There was a gentleman there in a wheelchair, an African-American triple amputee, with medals and decorations across his chest, waiting for his plane to arrive. He said he had been hit by a mortar shell in Afghanistan, and that when he was in Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], folks from my line of work had come by now and then, and I thought, 'Good for them, but what am I going to do with my time and how could I reach out, too?' … A couple months later, I was introduced to Seema Reza.
If this performance at the Lansburgh was part of their healing process, will there be additional steps, other performances?
There is some thinking that we might do more of this and might go on something of a tour with this performance, and have a more open conversation around PTSD in the military community or on college campuses or some combination thereof. But it was a pretty strenuous experience for these vets. I think they are now more open to it [and] have really gone a long way in their healing.
Why does art — in this instance, the spoken word as art — have such enormous therapeutic power?
Story is the way we organize our inner selves, and story as a collective, some argue, is where our consciousness lies. It's where we take account of ourselves and our communities, our past and our present, and where we begin to consider our futures. It's a necessary process — stories, the written word, and stories that we perform. I also think there's a cynicism now in our society that story and performance are these kinds of indulgences, or superficial exercises [but] what many artists do through their work is examine their experiences, their inner lives and examine the world outside, and try to reconcile those things.
These veterans are not asked to undertake that in the military but it's helped them redefine their relationship with themselves outside of that institution. It's let them express things that existed within them and that's led to some validation, forgiveness and toward necessary healing.
You've been involved with charitable causes for many years, and it seemed briefly — or maybe more than briefly — that they took precedence over acting. That still true?
For a period of time, that definitely was my primary professional focus, less so now, and I had to circle back to my day job.
Ah, and speaking of that day job, when will "Westworld" be back? (Wright plays Bernard Lowe, a "host" — aka android — and former chief of Delos Inc.'s Westworld programming division.)
[Laughs] We will be back on the air soon! Or as soon as we finish filming it, and that's all I'll say because we haven't even started [filming] yet. We've got some time. All of us who are involved love being a part of it and love working together and look forward to getting back together. … It's one of the reasons that I re-engaged with acting.