California Authors


Questar Assessment, Inc. - Educational Assessment Products

Anna Deavere Smith
by Janice Albert

Anna Deavere Smith

If ever a writer defied classification, it is Anna Deavere Smith. She is a dramatist who doesn't compose her character's lines; an interviewer but not a journalist, an actor who has been told that she's not black enough for African-American roles. In presenting her with its "genius" award in 1996, the MacArthur Foundation may have found the one category into which she definitely fits.

Californians know Smith from "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," a work of documentary theater that has been described as a collage of voices from the riots that exploded following the verdict exonerating police officers who beat Rodney King. Smith interviewed nearly 200 people, looking for a way to represent the event on stage in all its complexity. She calls this "a piece that deals with innocence and loss, more than innocence and guilt."

Smith invites her subjects to be interviewed and "embodied" for her stage presentations. In the case of "Twilight," she spoke with Korean grocers, Black intellectuals, street kids, Beverly Hills realtors and Daryl Gates, former Chief of Police. She studies and captures their words, gestures, facial expressions, posture, and speech traits. The magic of her performance is in watching these people come to life, as the actress transforms herself from one race, class or gender to another, changes often signaled by simply donning a cap or a scarf. The audience sees and understands, possibly for the first time, that the riots are a result of existing tensions, and that the issue is not as narrow as black versus white. "My predominant concern," writes Smith in the "Introduction" to the text of her play, "was that my own history, which is the history of race as a black and white struggle, would make the work narrower than it should be.… I am a strong critic of the insularity of people in theater and of our inability to shake up our traditions, particularly with regard to race and representation issues."

But even as I write the phrase "the text of her play," I am drawn to another of her unconventionalities, for "Twilight "is a fluid work. The first presentation at the Mark Taper Forum did not contain the words of Reginald Denny, for that interview could not be completed until after the trial. The 1994 text, available through Anchor Books, differs from any particular performance, for the actress/author reserves the right to add or delete as she goes along.

Smith conceived the idea of a series of dramatic presentations exploring American character following her graduation from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. (She received her MFA in 1977 at the age of twenty-seven.) She calls the series "On the Road: A Search for American Character." One of her early performance pieces in this series title was seen at the Eureka Theater, San Francisco, in 1990. Following the Crown Heights riots of New York, Smith created "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities," the story of riots that broke out between African American and Hasidic Jewish communities in August 1991. When a speeding car in the Grand Rebbe's procession struck and killed a black child, Gavin Cato, a group of blacks stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Hasidic scholar. Smith captured the events through the eyes of more than two dozen speakers, including residents and interested observers such as Angela Davis, Oakland activist and author, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of MS. magazine. Following this performance, Gordon Davidson, director/producer of the Mark Taper Forum, invited Smith to create a one-woman performance piece about the Los Angeles riots of April 1992.

Although she performs alone, Smith brings to her work a well-developed sense of collaboration. For "Fires in the Mirror," she writes about post-play discussions with the audience, talks which provided feedback to her and gave audience members information about each other. For "Twilight," she developed a dramaturgic team consisting of Dorinne Kondo, a Japanese American anthropologist and feminist scholar; Hector Tobar, a Guatemalan-American reporter from the Los Angeles Times; African-American poet and University of Chicago professor Elizabeth Alexander; and Oskar Eustis, resident director of the Taper, former director of the Eureka Theater and the man who commissioned Tony Kushner's "Angels in America."

In the Preface to "Fires," she writes of asking a linguist for ways to listen for character when it breaks through conventional formulas of speech. "I'm looking for the poem that a person has," she says, "so when I'm conducting an interview, I'm waiting for the rest of their language to move out of the way, for this poem to come forward." The linguist gave Smith three questions: Have you ever come close to death? Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? Do you remember the circumstances of your birth? Although she no longer uses exactly these questions, she says the exercise "taught her how to listen."

Can work that is so dependent on the performance by one woman have any lasting permanence? Smith seems to have asked herself that question, and in 1996, she worked at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, to produce "Fires in the Mirror" with two actors of different races, Becky London and Barbara Meek. In addition, her most current work, a play about the White House press corps, is intended for other actors to play the parts. (Coincidentally, Smith appears in the role of the president's press secretary in Rob Reiner's 1996 movie, "The American President.")

Smith is passionate about theater and its role in shaping community. She decries the de facto segregation of theater audiences and the current period in which identity has become "an ultimatum," rather than "a negotiation." In a 1995 speech to the National Endowment for the Arts, she says "In a moment such as this, where the national pantry seems to be low on such staple foods as grace, benefit of the doubt, and kindness, it is especially important that artists stay their course and remind the public that in fact, there is more to life than the material evidence of humanness. Now, more than ever, we must continue to practice the human touch. As the great chronicler of American life, Studs Terkel, said to me, 'We are more and more into communications and less and less into communication.'"

She continues, "The late Lorraine Hansberry in 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black' creates an image of a bridge acorss a chasm. It's a bridge which is filled with all of her favorite artists, many of them are indeed the greatest American artists of the twentieth century…. I have for many years been living with her image of the bridge across the chasm.

"We don't need a bridge that's monumental. We don't need an aesthetic miracle of a bridge. We need a bridge to take human beings from one side to the other. If we could remember the human touch and remind ourselves of the power of the word, the power of color, the power of song, the power of dance that defies gravity and reminds us of our souls. If we could remember this-remember it-we would all be, I think hopeful. I remain therefore, as ever, a prisoner of hope."

Back to the author index