03 May 2018

"Anna Deavere Smith Puts Herself Into Other People’s Words"

by Anna Deavere Smith

[Last week, I posted a report from PBS’s NewsHour on Washington, D.C.’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a region-wide collaboration of 25 theaters producing plays by women playwrights.  One of this country’s strongest and most prominent exemplars of women in theater, both as a writer and a performer, is Anna Deavere Smith, whose one-women plays have been unique and powerful theater for several decades.  

[Smith’s work is really a form of documentary theater, but instead of digging out records and hearing transcripts of long-past events, she creates her own documents of current issues by interviewing the participants, witnesses, and those affected—and then, channeling them from the stage in some of American theater’s most remarkable performances.  

[On 5 April, Smith presented her “Brief But Spectacular” essay on PBS NewsHour, an explanation of her perspective on how and why she does what she does.  Here is the transcript of that presentation.]

Anna Deavere Smith, actor, playwright and activist, says she has been trying to become America, word for word. By conducting interviews and creating a narrative, she aims to make a current problem come alive. Deavere Smith offers her Brief but Spectacular take on listening to people.

John Yang:  Finally, we turn to another installment of our series Brief But Spectacular, where we ask people about their passions.

Tonight, actor, playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith, widely known for her roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.” She has also earned critical acclaim for her one-woman shows. The latest, “Notes From the Field,” recently aired on HBO.

Smith shares her unique process for getting into character.

Anna Deavere Smith:  When I was a girl, my grandfather said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you.

And I have been trying to become America word for word. In the way that you would think about putting yourself in other people shoes, I’m putting myself in other people’s words.

I interview people, and I learn what they say and try to put together a lot of disparate parts of interviews in one whole, in order to make a current problem come alive.

There are certain points in any interview that I do that people start to speak in a way where the rhythm, you know, leads me to believe that there’s emotions stored in there. And so, as an actor, emotions are my fuel, and those are the types of moments that I want to reenact on stage.

Drinking malt liquor. This is not the time for us to be playing the lottery or to be at the Horseshoe Casino. This is not the time for us to be walking around.

I was a mimic as a child. And, you know, I guess you could say that what I’m doing now is a more respectable version of that, which was — you know, inevitably, mimicry is a little bit subversive. I don’t mean to be subversive. I’m not an impressionist.

I’m delighted if audiences think something’s funny, but I’m not making fun of a person.

My most recent play, “Notes From the Field” was based on my having done 250 interviews around the United States on the subject of what we call the school-to-prison pipeline.

I’m interested in complicating the narrative and revealing to the people in my audience that there are many narratives. The more roots you have going off in different directions and grabbing the ground, you’re probably going to be a stronger tree. And that would be my objective.

All of my works of art is a form of activism. I don’t have answers. I don’t indict people. I can let the judges do that. I can let the media do that. I’m a dramatist.

A drama is always a constructive journey, where something is lost and then it’s going to be regained.

I went to New Orleans right after Katrina. And to watch people looking around at everything they lost and trying to make some sense and making an impromptu plan is really important to me in how I view the world.

You know, you could say, oh, my goodness, isn’t that so hard? Doesn’t that make you sad? For me, it’s the opposite. It shows me just how inventive people are.

I believe that the theater and other art forms are an opportunity to convene people around these issues and ask them while they’re sitting together to do something.

My name is Anna Deavere Smith, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on listening to people.

[The backstory of “Brief but Spectacular,” a weekly series that premièred on NewsHour in 2015, begins with creator Steve Goldbloom, the creator and host of the original comedy news show for PBS, “Everything But the News,” and his longtime producing partner Zach Land-Miller who conduct every interview off-camera and off-screen.  (The segments are all two to four minutes long and there are no cutaways to reporters or interjections of questions.)  Each Thursday, “Brief but Spectacular” introduces NewsHour viewers to original profiles; these short segments feature some of the most original contemporary figures, offering passionate takes on topics they know well.  These have included household names like actors Alec Baldwin and Carl Reiner, artist Marina Abramović,  and activist Bryan Stevenson.  Topics have included comedian, writer, and director Jill Soloway (Amazon’s original series Transparent) on gatekeepers in Hollywood, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates on police reform in America, Abramović on the art of performance, author Michael Lewis on finding disruptive characters, performers Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer on the rise of their hit Comedy Central series Broad City, engineer Jason Dunn on creating the first 3-D printer in space, and many more.]

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