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In the early 1990s, playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith reclaimed the American theater as a forum for a vital political and social discourse about the issues of race, class, gender, and violence. Her mission was to give voice to people who had never been heard from before and to reach audiences that had never come to the theater.
Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life and Exploration Born September 18,1950, in Baltimore, Maryland, Smith grew up in a middle-class black family, the eldest of five children. Smith s father ran a small tea and coffee business. Her mother, an educator who taught in the public school system, became an elementary school principal. Smith, who claims she was shy as a child, grew up in a segregated Baltimore. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, but it wasn ‘t until she was a teenager and sent to a predominantly Jewish middle school that she had contact with an integrated community.
In 1967, Smith entered Beaver College outside of Philadelphia. The institution, which was then predominantly white and all female, failed to shelter her from the turbulence of the late 1960s. In 1968, her sophomore year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. That seminal event, and the subsequent assassination in June 1968 of Bobby Kennedy, the protests against the Vietnam War, the women s movement, the civil rights and black liberation movements, all prompted in her an uneasy social awareness. After graduation, she moved to California and began taking acting classes at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Epiphanies of Language and Identity
Two events occurred when Smith was in her twenties that were to permanently inform her writing. They both dealt with language and identity. The first was the consequence of an assignment in a Shakespeare class at the American Conservatory. Her instructor, Juanita Rice, assigned an exercise—students were to pick fourteen lines of Shakespeare, at random, and recite them aloud until the words revealed a deeper level of meaning. Smith randomly choose Queen Margaret’s blistering words to the mother of Richard III (Richard III 4.4.47-54).
Late one night she repeated Queen Margaret’s speech over and over. Smith recounts that a fully formed vision of Queen Margaret appeared in her room, conjured only by those powerful words and the potency of her own imagination. In that instant, language took on the characteristics of a mystical phenomenon; she understood that an individual’s words would be her key to understanding. She came to the realization that if she were able to interview and record a person’s voice, and then listen to his or her words over and over again on a tape recorder, she might, in fact, be able to embody that person, physically and vocally, on stage.
Smith completed her master’s degree at the American Conservatory Theater at the age of twenty-seven. Casting directors and agents informed Smith, somewhat unkindly, that it would be difficult for her to land roles because she looked neither white nor black. So Smith began a teaching stint at Carnegie Mellon University, but she soon gave up her tenure-track job to face the daunting odds of looking for work as an actor in New York City. She held a series of temporary jobs, had a brief flurry of success getting cast in plays, but was soon unemployed again. Her second major artistic epiphany came in 1981, while working a secretarial job in the complaint department of the airline KLM. It was during this time that Smith first conceived of creating her own performance pieces, a notion that occurred after a tremendous amount of time spent reading wide-ranging complaint letters. Once she got beyond the menial task, suddenly people’s individuated words and stories began to resonate with her, and she found herself envisioning a theater project. She wanted to know what the relationship of character was to language. As she put it, ”What does language, the way we render language, tell us about who we are?”
The same year, she had a chance meeting at a party with a linguist with whom she discussed her work at the complaint department and also talked about her frustrations with method-based acting. Smith articulated her craving to get people engaged in a genuine conversation. To find her own artistic voice, Smith intuitively knew that she had to develop her ability to listen. The linguist suggested a series of questions that might get people to open up and let down their guard: ”Have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? Have you been accused of something you did not do?” For the next few years Smith carried a tape recorder and those three questions with her at all times. She would walk up to people and say ”If you give me an hour of your time, I’ll invite you to see yourself performed.”
Moving Toward a New Theatrical Expression
Feeling constrained by traditional forms of drama, Smith realized that she had been influenced by other forms of media, particularly popular television talk shows and celebrity interviews. She was interested in moving past the artifice inherent in the staged interview. When she began doing her own interviews, stripped of the distractions and diversions provided by laugh-tracks and commercial breaks, she was able to begin to pinpoint, and, later, mimic, the intricacies of her subjects’ language— which, for Smith, meant getting ever-closer to understanding their true identities.
Smith soon found that in order to bring to the stage the real people that she was interviewing, she needed to create, not only her own method of recording and writing, but also her own approach to the process of acting itself. She began shaping the interviews into an ongoing series of solo performances, a sound financial decision in addition to an artistic one. The first of these ”On the Road: The Search for American Character” pieces was performed at A Clear Space in New York City in 1982. In subsequent years, she performed a new piece almost every year.
The Theater as Documentary
In December of 1991, Smith premiered a ground-breaking piece that would later be expanded into Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities (1992). It was inspired by the eruption of racially charged urban violence that took place in August of that year in Crown Heights—the diverse neighborhood fifteen minutes from downtown Brooklyn. There had been tensions between the settled Caribbean Americans and the more recently arrived Lubavitchers, a sect of Hasidic Jews. These tensions spiraled into four days of riots after a seven-year-old Guyanese child was killed when a car from the police-escorted motorcade of Grand Rebee Menachem Scheerson, the leader of the Lubavitchers, spun out of control. A rabbinical student visiting from Australia was stabbed to death three hours later in what appeared to be retaliation.
Disturbed by these events, Smith took a short leave from her one-year fellowship at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute and traveled to New York. Over a period of eight days in the fall of 1991, she interviewed people connected to the events in Crown Heights. She spoke with leaders from both the black and the Lubavitch communities, local residents, New York activists, scholars, and with family members of both of the victims. Her purpose was not to conduct a journalistic investigation of the facts of the riots, but rather, to document what she referred to as the “how” rather than the “why” of their speech. The dramatic piece she subsequently wrote begins with the poet Ntozake Shange discussing the word “identity,” how people define it and how it defines them, a theme that runs through all of Smith’s work. By taking on and performing twenty-six different identities herself, she was able to bring about a sense of connection between the most disparate of characters.
The final preview of Fires in the Mirror (performances of a new play are given for critics before opening to the general public), scheduled for April 29, 1992, was cancelled after rioting broke out in Los Angeles. The play opened the following night to an ecstatic reception from critics, and Smith went on to win several important prizes for the work, including a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.
Immediately after Fires in the Mirror closed in New York, Smith was on her way to Los Angeles to plunge headlong into the aftermath of the devastating riots following the Rodney King verdict. Gordon Davidson, the artistic director/producer of the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, commissioned Smith to create a piece about the event, which was spurred by an unexpected acquittal by an all-white jury of four white police officers, whose brutal beating of King, a black man, had been captured on videotape. Fifty-one people were killed in the riots that followed, the violence crossing both racial and ethnic boundaries. Smith found herself immersed in an even more extensive research process than she had undergone for Fires in the Mirror.
To create Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith interviewed some two hundred people over a period of several months, from the former Los Angeles police commissioner to former gang members, people who witnessed the events, King’s aunt, scholars, artists, and Korean community members. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 was given rapturous receptions in Los Angeles, New York, and on Broadway.
For her next project, Smith traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1995 to begin what would be a five-year investigation into politics, the presidency, and the press. In another departure from her previous work, Smith, after interviewing hundreds of Washington politicians, reporters, historians, and social pundits, chose not to perform her own material but scripted her first play for other actors. She was also hired by Newsweek as a special correspondent, and she covered both the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the 1996 election campaign.
In 1997, Smith premiered House Arrest—First Edition, a play that explored the moral foibles of American presidents and the growing power of the press. After the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, in which President Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern led to his impeachment by the House of Representatives and subsequent acquittal by the Senate, Smith expanded her play to include a part on various presidential infidelities. Another section of the show focused on the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and another on the trials that women in high-powered jobs have faced. The original version showcased a troupe of actors, but Smith would later stage a version where she played all the roles.
During this time, Smith also completed a memoir, Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (2000), that splices together her memories of growing up in segregated Baltimore with her thoughts on playwriting, the creative process, and the development of her own political consciousness. Smith’s interviews with an array of Washington personalities are interspersed throughout the book, written as if they were lines of verse.
Acting and Academia
Smith taught at the American Conservatory Theater, Carnegie Mellon, University of Southern California, Yale, and Stanford, before joining the faculty at New York University, where she holds a joint appointment as university professor in the Performance Studies Department at the Tisch School for the Arts, and in the Department of Art and Public Policy at the New York University School of Law. She is the founder of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard, which has returned after several years in hiatus.
Smith worked steadily as an actress in both television and the movies beginning in the early 1990s, notably in a recurring role as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s The West Wing and as a supporting actor in films The American President and The Human Stain.
In 2006, her acting and educational impulses met in her book Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts—For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind, which offers practical suggestions for those who wish to enter the arts.
Works in Literary Context
For all her efforts on behalf of encouraging a dialogue about racial issues in America, Smith does not consider herself a social activist. It is impossible, however, to distance her work from the tradition of activism in art that is very much a part of her generation. In 1998, Smith founded the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard. For three years the institute brought artists, scholars, and other professionals together to explore ways in which the arts could be more directly engaged in vital social issues and impact a wider and more diverse audience. In 2008, the institute will once again gather artists from around the world to advance that cause. Previous participants have included artists, architects, and musicians.
The Oral Tradition
Smith’s most famous and beloved works are those she transcribed and performed—an almost exclusively oral expression. Her respect and even reverence for an individual’s idiomatic use of language is evident in the care and effort she puts into translating those words and ideas onto the stage. A generation of spoken word poets, and even the gifted mimics of sketch comedy, have given her a tradition to build upon.
Documentary theater uses factually based material to dramatize and comment on social issues, usually from a leftist or liberal perspective. This type of theater was associated in the early twentieth century with the names Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), a German dramatist, and Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), a German director. Documentary theater may use a variety of nonfiction materials, including interviews, court transcripts, speeches, and other public documents. Its aim is to get the audience to think seriously about matters such as social injustice, political corruption, or issues related to class, race, gender, or sexual orientation. A contemporary example of documentary theater is The Exonerated (2002), a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, which examines the injustices that result from the use of the death penalty in the United States. The dramatists constructed their play entirely from interviews, court documents, and case files concerning six people who were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. Another example is the play The Laramie Project, created by the Tectonic Theater Project, which used interviews to create the text for the play, which was based on the murder of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. In addition to Smith, other contemporary American dramatists who write documentary theater include Mark Wolf, Emily Mann, Eve Ensler, and Sarah Jones.
Works in Critical Context
Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
Critical reception of these two bookended pieces was almost universally positive and contributed to Smith being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, frequently known as the ”Genius Grant.” Of Fires in the Mirror Frank Rich in the New York Times wrote, ”Quite simply the most compelling and sophisticated view of urban racial and class conflict that one could hope to encounter. . . . Ingenious in concept.”
In The New Yorker, John Lahr wrote that ” Twilight goes some way toward reclaiming for the stage its crucial role as a leader in defining and acting out that experiment called the United States.” Smith garnered several Obie and New York Drama Critics Circle awards for these works.
House Arrest: A Search for American Character in and Around the White House, Past and Present
In stark contrast to the reception of Smith’s earlier work documenting racial strife, the Los Angeles premiere of her politically driven play House Arrest: A Search for American Character in and Around the White House, Past and Present, was met with boredom, confusion, and in some cases, disdain. The original staging called for actors, a departure for Smith, to play the roles of the famous individuals from the political past and present. When this was changed for the New York debut, critical reception did not improve. Ben Brantley of the New York Times commented, ”You have the definite impression that Ms. Smith, confronted with the vastness of her subject, has lost control of her material. . . . As is, she emerges as a wanderer in an immense forest of facts and ideas who, somewhere along the way lost her compass”
- Eisler, Garrett, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 341, Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Fifth Series. Dearborn, Mich: Gale, 2008.
- Smith, Anna Deavere. Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts—For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind. New York:Vintage,2006.
- Tharp, Twyla. Push Comes to Shove. New York: Bantam, 1992.
- Brantley, Ben. Review of House Arrest. New York Times (March 27, 2000).
- Lahr, John. ”Under the Skin.” The New Yorker (June 28, 1993).
- Rich, Frank. ”Diversity of America in One-Person Shows.” New York Times (May 5, 1992).
- Aaron Sorkin. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.nndb.com/people/519/000022453.
- Errol Morris Biography. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.errolmorris.com/biography.htm.
- IBDB: The Official Source for Broadway Information. Retrieved November 21, 2008, from http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?id=1596.
- IMDB: The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved November 22, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm
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