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Anna Deavere Smith on the Power of Real Listening

by Phillip Larrimore

September 18, 2016

Anna Deavere Smith, who will be appearing at the Gantt Center’s Symposium 2016 at the Knight Theater this Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. (sponsored by Wells Fargo), is renowned for her solo shows on the subjects of race riots (Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992), health care (Let Me Down Easy), and education and the prison system. These are made from interviews, which are then performed verbatim.

She is an uncanny mimic, routinely performing feats of transformation at a clip; a typical piece might include 20 to 40 characters from every station in life. Her men and women are put convincingly before our eyes—she might, for instance, alternate a Hassidic Jewish matron with activist Al Sharpton.

The actor, playwright and professor has been nominated for the Pulitzer in drama, received a MacArthur Fellowship, and the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2013), and has been presented throughout her career on PBS’ Great Performances. Deavere Smith is hugely influential and is credited with starting the “Theater of Testimony” (also known as "verbatim theatre" or "documentary theatre"), in which journalism usurps fiction. So far, she overshadows her many imitators.

She ought to have hardened into an institution by now, but she hasn’t. What keeps Deavere Smith’s work fresh seems to be the broad range of people who she interviews, the depth of the listening  that she brings to the table, and a joy she finds in the expressiveness of the person doing the talking.  She is skilled at getting a great deal out of anyone, and adept at finding the person who “will shout it from the mountaintop.”

Fires in the Mirror, the show that propelled her to fame in the early 1990s, was the thirteenth of these one-person-as-many theater pieces. It is now nearly 30 years old, but it still seems sharp due to the  level of observation given to the African-American and Hassidic Jewish communities of Brooklyn's racially divided Crown Heights neighborhood, who found themselves in deadly enmity after a Hassidic businessman accidently ran over and killed a black child on a sidewalk, and a young Jewish man was stabbed to death the next week.

The grief of each community—both victims of institutional  racism to an oft fatal degree, both oblivious to each other—is refracted through the accounts of 20 people over an hour and a half. It starts by looking like the news and then climbs a steep route to poetry. According to Smith, there is a moment when anyone who is listened to attentively will cease to talk from their perch and instead will speak from their heart when asked the right question. To wait for this moment, to listen for it without judgment or impatience, to hear the person as well as their schtick, to discern the sorrow beneath the invective, and to use their words as they were said, is what Smith requires of herself as an interviewer.  It is sad to consider how distant from the conduct of daily life this approach seems to be, particularly in this election year. And yet, and yet…

Anna Deavere Smith

To find this vein of poetry in Norman Rosenbaum (brother of the slain Hassidic) or Rodney King, or Anne Richards when she was Governor of Texas, or Gavin Cato’s father, as he talks of his child’s death, is simply to restore to an “other” their true humanity.

Twilight, the work that followed Fires in the Mirror, was a successful enlargement of the multi-facetted interview concept. The latter had the weight of a novel; Twilight felt epic or panoramic. Every point of view had the effect of modifying and perhaps correcting or adding a layer of understanding to what had been said before. One of the hidden strengths of Deavere Smith’s work is its narrative faceting; the editing of whose story is told in the over-riding arc of the play always tilts to what is next with a “yes, but…” “Yes, that story is true from its vantage, but the person over there was seeing this...” “Yes, but down the block and up the hill that same event presented itself thus...” It becomes verbally symphonic as a result, with something of the breadth of Woolf's The Waves or Joyce's Ulysses or Eliot's The Wasteland, and before them, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Listening, obviously, is the beginning of such a process, but Smith emphasizes that her characters are recreated through their own words. She is a great believer in the word as Originality. She calls it “walking in someone’s words” and this rhymes somehow with her practice of performing barefoot. Her Grandpa, who was a coffee and tea merchant in segregated Baltimore, told her as a child that, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” This incantation of another person’s psyche, this conjuring them up, is what makes Deavere Smith’s work almost spooky. It’s the reason I associate it with poetry as much as theater.

There is a vein of poetry in democracy that keeps trying to have its say throughout the collisions and collusions of politics. It keeps trying to state that humanity is greater than its parts because of its parts—that is, the individuals which make up the whole. “Here the profound lesson of reception,” writes Whitman in "Song of the Open Road, “nor preference nor denial/the black with his wooly head, the felon, the diseas’d, the illiterate person, are not denied; the birth, the hasting after the physician, the beggar’s tramp, the drunkard’s stagger, the laughing party of mechanics, the escaped youth…none can be interdicted, none but are accepted, none but shall be dear to me…”

This synoptic democratic vision is our best hope amidst our mutual misunderstandings large and small. Whitman is its bard. It may be found in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, in Vachel Lindsay, in George Oppen (“Of Being Numerous”) and Charles Reznikoff’s remarkable if little known “Testimony,” among others. It illumines Deavere Smith’s work, and makes her an avatar of this vision for the present day. Walking in someone else’s words is her means of smuggling hope from disaster.

The two riot plays have been followed by a broad-spectrum view of health care, Let Me Down Easy, which deals with the vulneribilities of the body and the hurdles of the health care system. The pipelining of young black men into the for-profit prison system via public schools is the subject of another work in progress, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education. The title of the symposium on Thursday night is “Snapshots: Portraits of a World in Transition.” Who knows who among the multitude she has portrayed will be on stage? I can’t wait to find out.  


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Tags: Verbatim theatre, Anna Deavere Smith, Rodney King, Crown Heights, riots, health care system, prison pipeline, Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Gantt Center's Symposium

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