Voice of America

Anna Deavere Smith: The shy priestess of performance art has made a career acting out the intimate confessions of others.

Published December 8, 1998 11:49AM (EST)

Is theater dead? For centuries critics have debated this oddly self-prophesying question. But now that movies and electronic entertainment have laid claim to every corner of the public's imagination, never before has the pulse of that non-virtual animal seemed more faint. In recent decades valiant thespians have meandered into unknown territory in search of a cure. Performance artists resuscitated autobiographical storytelling; spoken word artists breathed hot air into the oral poem; multimedia artists spliced high-tech inventions with pagan rituals. Occasionally, a discovery would be made, like playwright Tony Kushner, whose seven-hour play "Angels in America" swept the Tonys and the Pulitzers, or director Robert Wilson, whose visual, elliptical parables dazzled a generation of anti-verbal theater artists. But many of the experimental treatments only made poor old Dionysus all the sicker. Contemporary theater addressed fewer and fewer people about increasingly myopic topics. Spiritual redemption -- as if death had already occurred -- became the thematic order of the day. The private lives of solo performers became the standard source of new material. Theater needed not just another infusion of talent. It needed a savior.

This is one explanation for the fervor with which Anna Deavere Smith has been received. Of all the likely candidates -- playwrights like Kushner, directors like Peter Sellars, performance artists like Spalding Gray -- none has come closer to fulfilling that fantasy of theatrical messiah. In 1991, she seized the American stage with "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and other Identities," her one-woman epic on the bloody Jewish-black confrontation that shook New York after a 7-year-old black boy was hit and killed by a Hasidic driver. Although she had been working on her brand of documentary theater since the early 1980s, and had won the enthusiastic response of critics, "Fires" thrust her into the national limelight in a way that nobody could have expected. With her sweeping political and artistic ambitions and her uncanny talent for mimicry, Smith was greeted as theater's antidote against social irrelevance. Not only did she make work that reflected the broad canvas of America, but she did so without the use of massive casts, tendentious dialogue and high-art pretense. Not only was she an African-American woman, she was talking about racial issues freed from the blinders of identity politics. Not only was she a serious experimenter in the field of theater, but she was -- of all things -- entertaining.

Theater, in Smith's hands, would become nothing less than an attempt to reintroduce America to itself, giving voice to the disparate social groups that had become warring tribes. "Early on in my work, I wanted to use my body as the evidence that a human being can take on the identity of another," Smith told a gathering of business and arts leaders in Seattle this year. "I think we all have immense potential for compassion as individuals. But that gets stopped when we take on fixed positions."

In portraying real people from divergent backgrounds, Smith depicts the hot pot of American culture that refuses to melt. Her technique is so seemingly simple that it is a wonder more actors-turned-solo-performers have not followed in her footsteps. She interviews individuals who have been directly or indirectly involved in an American crisis or turning point, memorizes their words, then reproduces these finely honed mimicries onstage. A smattering of props and costume changes, a video clip or two, some lighting and voila: a theatrical form that capitalizes on two American obsessions -- the personal revelation and the cultural clash -- but elevates them to a subtle study of human nature.

In some ways, Smith's work is the ultimate expression of the autobiographical fever gripping the nation. Like Oprah Winfrey and Ricki Lake, she cobbles her shows together from real people's heartfelt revelations. "Acting isn't nice," she has said, asserting that it's not her work to paint flattering pictures. "It's giving but it's also stealing." Smith, a light-skinned African-American woman, becomes an old Jewish man, a Korean grocer, a black minister and a Hollywood agent, expropriating their speech rhythms and tics, and drilling down to the essence of their character. George C. Wolfe, who has directed two of Smith's productions, called her a "ferret," explaining that she's "unwilling to accept (her subjects') external explanations."

But Smith herself is invisible in her work. Like most documentarians, she attempts to inhabit her subjects' lives -- interviewing, editing and splicing together their stories -- but stays silent about her own point of view. Unlike Spalding Gray, whose every bout of existential flatulence is tenderly chronicled in book and performance form, Smith guards her personal life fiercely and dislikes probing or personal interviews. A single woman of 48 who has been romantically linked with other women in the theater, she has said in interviews that she simply doesn't have time for a personal life. By all accounts, Smith is a deeply private woman who works nonstop in shaping and giving voice to the intimate expressions of others.

Smith's reticence was evident from the very beginning. Her mother was in labor for five days: "I came down the birth canal, turned around and went back up," she once explained. The oldest of five in a Baltimore family, Smith was a shy child whose remarkable penchant for mimicry saved her from being a social outcast. In 1967, she attended Beaver College, a small women's school outside Philadelphia, where she studied acting. But coming of age during the era of black power and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. threw her into an identity crisis. She went, in her words, from "a nice Negro girl" to a young woman who "had no idea who [she] was or [what] she should be." In the 1970s she set out for California with $80 and an overnight bag in search of a social movement to join. But by then the fires of revolution were already dying and Smith found herself taking acting classes at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. "I guess if my college was courting, I met my lover in my first summer of acting school," she once said. "If you ask about the birth of my artistry, I got pregnant with acting that first year."

After studying and performing in San Francisco, Smith moved to New York, where she won small parts in off-Broadway productions and soap operas. Soon she began teaching acting at Yale, NYU and Carnegie Mellon. It was there in the halls of academe that she began developing the technique that would transform her from a relatively unknown actor to one of the most celebrated artists of her time. It is not exactly an acting technique -- though often that's how she refers to it -- but a linguistic philosophy. "Character lives in language," she says, pointing to something her grandfather once told her: "If you say a word often enough, it becomes you." And so by committing the language of Americans to memory, she searches for their true selves lurking between the stuttering and the slang and the peculiarities of speech.

In the early '80s Smith embarked on the first of a series of documentary shows she called "On the Road: A Search of American Character" -- which all her subsequent shows have been a part of. When she began interviewing subjects in preparation for her first show, Smith sought ways to compel people to speak more authentically. "I asked a linguist how I might encourage people to say 'uh' more. 'Uhs' are actually the place where I find American character." The linguist suggested that she ask people three questions: Have you ever been accused of something you did not do? Can you recall the circumstances of your birth? Have you ever come close to death?

Why would a woman so finely trained in the art of communication need a linguist to furnish her with such simple and human questions? Although she now ventures into the streets, the boardrooms and the living rooms of America, Smith's early work grew directly out of the precious academic and artistic ghettos where she herself lived. The title of her show "Chlorophyll Postmodernism and the Mother Goddess/A Conversation," performed in 1988 in San Diego, says it all. It is a compilation of none-too-gripping interviews with members of a women's stage project about the evolution of an explicitly feminist theater during the 1970s. Two years later at Eureka Theater in San Francisco, she performed "On the Road: San Francisco 1990," a vast improvement over "Chlorophyll Postmodernism" but still a meandering assortment of voices in search of a compelling story. She hadn't yet discovered how to apply her techniques to stories big enough for her voice.

"Fires" sparked Smith's artistic and commercial breakthrough. In 1993 PBS televised "Fires" on "American Playhouse." A year later she followed the Crown Heights model and presented "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," in which she portrayed an assortment of Angelenos touched by the Rodney King riots. With her elastic face and acrobatic voice, she transmogrified before our eyes, crossing over race, age, class and gender lines without so much as a makeup change. She portrayed a white Hollywood talent agent who hid out in the Beverly Hills Hotel, a Korean grocer who protected his shop with a gun from his rooftop, police Chief Daryl Gates explaining his reasons for staying at a socialite fund-raiser as the city burned and Twilight Bey, a former gang member who brokered the tenuous truce between warring South Central groups. This was the human history missing from the babble of 24-hour news, the idiosyncratic voices of our most modern megalopolis.

Now Smith splits her time between teaching acting at Stanford University -- she lives in San Francisco -- and working on "House Arrest," a play about the myth of the American presidency from the Jefferson-Hemings controversy to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "House Arrest," her first multi-actor play, will premiere this spring at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. In preparing her latest play, Smith moved within Washington's elite political and media circles, provoking barbs from the likes of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who chided her for riding on Air Force One with President Clinton, courtesy of a Newsweek press pass.

Smith is no longer the obscure actor and academic in search of America's voices. In recent years, she has been showered with professional and academic awards and appointments, including a 1996 "genius grant" of $280,000 from the MacArthur Foundation, an Obie Award and the Ford Foundation's first artist in residency. Last summer she began a three-year stint as founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, a new Harvard University think tank devoted to socially conscious art that in part grew from conversations with her friend Henry Louis Gates, head of Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.

Smith's growing celebrity has left some of her old theatrical comrades watching from a distance and shaking their heads. "She's been bitten by the fame bug," one former associate said. "She's moved away from her old community of theater people and burned a lot of bridges." Some spread rumors that she travels everywhere in a limousine with a personal masseuse; others point to the number of assistants, directors and others she has fired over the years and speculate that she's become impossible to work for. "She had assistants who she refused to speak to but still expected them to get their job done," one former colleague said.

These grumblings raise the question of whether Anna Deavere Smith has become so successful she can no longer serve as the country's cross-cultural ambassador, slipping unobtrusively across our many fracture lines. While she still can portray all the world onstage, once she steps off the boards she moves in rarefied circles. She is part of the cultural elite now -- lunching with Alice Waters, brainstorming at Harvard and the Ford Foundation, chatting backstage with President Clinton. Her new status opens doors, certainly, but it also closes them. Television versions of her performances -- like that of "Fires" and another under way based on "Twilight" -- have made her accessible to a wider audience. But what of her vision for making theater relevant again, for making it speak to more than just the usual crowd of comfortable and sensitive patrons. "In my naiveness," she once told the Boston Globe, "I thought if I brought different kinds of people (in front of) the audience, that would ensure that there were different kinds of people in the audience, but that hasn't happened."

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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