Angelou grabs the spotlight from Wiesel in South Bay

Two large legends on a comparatively small stage. He is the most famous of Holocaust survivors, an author and so-called conscience of a generation. She is a Nobel Prize-winning poet and black activist.

Elie Wiesel and Maya Angelou traded barbs and insights on humanity, hate and religion in Cupertino Monday as part of the Foothill College Celebrity Forum speaker series.

The event was a reunion for the do-good duo, who premiered together five years ago at a Massachusetts university.

But while they rendezvoused Monday to discuss humanity's missteps in the struggle against oppression, the night, this time, belonged to Angelou.

The former dancer took the lead from the start of the hour-and-15-minute dialogue. Wiesel struggled to keep up with his partner's verbose wanderings. Angelou never let him get too far with a thought before she cut in with a new topic.

Their herky-jerky dance kept the survivor constantly off balance as he groped for opportunities to ad-lib and steer the wayward presentation back on course.

On most points, they appeared to agree. Their mutual admiration bridged their disagreements.

Angelou proclaimed the Zen quality of Wiesel's comments.

"No, that's Chassidism," he corrected.

"They're all the same," the Christian Angelou quipped.

The poet gushed over Wiesel's writings.

"I've read [his novel] `Beggar in Jerusalem' about 10 times aloud," she said while explaining the value of hearing one's voice resonate with someone else's words.

"[Do] whatever helps you to see yourself in your sister and brother. People look at me and see a 6-foot-tall, African-American lady.

"I'm actually Elie Wiesel," she joked.

Jabbed Wiesel, "Then, what am I doing here?"

Indeed, the Jewish speaker might have fared better with a different conversation partner. After a noble beginning on the role of religion in their lives, the discussion gave way to a lengthy series of arcane odes, self-serving anecdotes and abstract ramblings by Angelou.

Her cathartic carrying on often failed to make a point or even stay on the topic. The audience and Wiesel, nevertheless, laughed along with her.

The pair finally seemed to hit upon a subject for continued discussion when Angelou said racism was partially responsible for the scarcity of black faces in the crowd.

Wiesel challenged her. He asked the audience whether they thought racism kept African Americans from attending the presentation.

When the crowd of 2,500 responded with a resounding "No," Angelou attempted to explain why racism discouraged black attendance. But again, she launched into an anecdote that roamed to new territory.

Wiesel would start in with a cautionary warning about humanity's darkest impulses. Angelou cut him short with a call for only positive and loving ideas.

Angelou chanted in poetic verse about human triumphs in the face of tyranny; Wiesel tried to explain the role of art in reaching out to others.

Wiesel wore a smile throughout the talk. After Angelou dramatically summed up her thoughts and asked the audience for questions, he whimsically informed her that she had seven minutes to go.

"Maya, thank you for allowing me to say a few words tonight," he said before the two strolled offstage arm in arm.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.