The Daily Gamecock

Fitzgerald: ‘To act is to do’

Actress spreads message of service, humanitarianism

Melissa Fitzgerald never imagined that her acting career would bring her from the corners of Los Angeles to the lowly war-torn brush of Northern Uganda.

But if the former “West Wing” actress and director has learned anything from her profession, it’s that “to act is to do.”

“It’s not waiting for the perfect conditions do to something or waiting for the person next to you,” the self-proclaimed ‘actorvist’ told a packed Gambrell Hall audience Wednesday night. “It simply means to act. That’s been an important lesson in my life. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be perfect to be of service.”

Through connections with the Office of the President and sponsorship from the history department, Fitzgerald has spent the past week bouncing around USC classrooms to meet with students and share her experiences as a humanitarian in Northern Uganda.

The visit ended Wednesday night with a dynamic and well-attended multimedia presentation on her theater work with Ugandan youth, chronicled in her self-directed documentary, “Staging Hope.”

Fitzgerald’s urge to help others through theater first came to fruition early in her career after she moved to LA. She wanted to use her skills to make an impact, so she and fellow West Wing actor David Ackert co-founded “Voices in Harmony,” a non-profit arts program that trains at-risk teens to express community issues through theater.

“We were just a bunch of broke, unemployed actors, but being part of something bigger than ourselves has given us the most rewarding experience of our lives,” Fitzgerald said.

Years later, Fitzgerald felt compelled to bring her services to Africa.

After searching humanitarian organizations on Oprah’s website, she found herself on a flight to Johannesburg with an international medical organization.

It was a transforming experience that encouraged her to go back, this time to the more devastated region of Northern Uganda, where ongoing civil war had left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, where thousands of children had been abducted, abused and forced into service by rebel militant forces.

Fitzgerald had prepared herself for the tragedy and scars she would encounter at the refugee camps, but she had not counted on the shocking kindness, generosity and resilience of the people trapped there.

Before she left, one man begged of her, she said, “Please tell the people of America what is happening to us here.”

Five years later, she is staying true to that mission, travelling the country, speaking to audiences and sharing the stories that she and her fellow actors have gathered from their work with the people of Uganda.

Fitzgerald has shared some of these stories through clips from her documentary, in which she and her fellow actors bring their theater mentoring program to teens in Uganda.

She’s shared others through monologues crafted by renowned writers, including “West Wing” screenwriter Josh Singer, after extensive interviews with the war victims.

Those monologues were performed by members of USC’s theater program.

Third-year media arts student Stephen Canada spent a week preparing for the emotional role of Gabriel, a Ugandan boy who watched his brother die at the hands of rebel forces.

“The fact that this is a real person makes you want to put forth that extra effort to convey what they went through,” Canada said. “We were fortunate that Melissa gave us this opportunity.”

Since a Cessation Hostilities Agreement between the Government of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was signed, almost all 1.8 million displaced refugees have returned to their country.

The problem remains, though, that many no longer have homes to return to.

Basic services, from education and health care facilities to clean water supply, remain scarce in the scarred brush.

But this is not where Fitzgerald’s story ends.

For her, the story of Uganda is one of hope, from the nervous teenagers who took the stage to perform for their communities to the strength of U.S. organizations such as Invisible Children, which opened a chapter at USC last fall.

According to Fitzgerald, it is the compassion and drive of the young men and women in these organizations that pushed the United States to work toward change in the region.

In 2010, the Obama administration to pass the LRA Disarmament Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which has since then deployed US military advisors to assist regional counter-LRA efforts.

After leading the audience in a call and response, which had even History Department Chair Larry Glickman smiling wide and swaying his hips.

Fitzgerald encouraged all students to continue the story of hope in their own communities and attend the Service Opportunity Fair at the Russell House on Wednesday, February 1.

“Find ways to use your gifts to be of service,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not an exceptional person, but I’ve been able to do some incredible things through service. I hope you find something you’re passionate about, because you have so many opportunities at this school to do wonderful things for others.”