She, the people

Anna Deavere Smith talks about empathizing with Rodney King, the LAPD and President Clinton.

Published November 1, 2000 8:04AM (EST)

Anna Deavere Smith changed American theater forever in 1991, when she opened her one-woman show, "Fires in the Mirror," about the riots that broke out between Jews and blacks in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, N.Y., earlier that year. Smith interviewed hundreds of people -- both well-known and unknown -- who'd witnessed or participated in the riots, edited down those interviews and then performed them, using not only her subjects' words, but their mannerisms, rhythms of voice and unique use of language, to form a human collage, embodied in one woman, depicting a neighborhood as it tore itself apart. It was both a virtuoso performance and a remarkable act of racial, cultural and personal empathy.

Since then, Smith has produced two more solo performances: "Twilight Los Angeles," which similarly dramatized the 1992 riots that broke out in L.A. following the first Rodney King trial; and, this year, a meditation on the American presidency and the press called "House Arrest." Both were part of a series of theater performances that Smith calls "On the Road: The Search for American Character." Smith has just published a book, "Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines" -- partly a memoir, partly a discussion of her technique and partly a synthesis of the knowledge she's gained over almost 30 years of talking and listening to people in all walks of life, in and out of crisis. Salon caught up with Smith by phone at her New York apartment.

You've often spoken of language being a window into the soul. Why language? Why not body language, or silences, or facial expressions, or how we treat our pets?

That's several questions. First, you're absolutely right. Why not silence? Why not expression, why not body language? And I would be very, very interested in all of those. However, as a young person I was particularly interested in the world as a verbal place, and loved to listen. I have a feeling that my mother must have read to me very, very expressively when I was a little girl, because she tells me how I would ask her to say certain parts of the story again or sing "Jesus Loves Me" again, so I think I liked the way that things sound. That's just my nature. I had a profound, unquenchable desire to hear language.

And then I suppose as you begin to chisel down what you're gonna do with your life, you at some point just decide, "I'm gonna follow my passion." And on that journey, I happened by accident into an acting school and my first Shakespeare class, and I had an extraordinary experience, following an exercise that our teacher gave us, telling us to speak any 14 lines of Shakespeare over and over again "until something happened."

The 14 lines I picked were from Queen Margaret in Shakespeare's "Richard III" -- sort of a curse, really, that Margaret was giving to Richard's mother.

And I became so involved with the exercise that I literally saw Queen Margaret in my little room. That set me on a lifelong quest, because my imagination hadn't been that ripe since I was a kid. I wanted to have that gift as big as I could, and if language had something to do with it, then I was gonna learn everything I could about it.

So in your case, the words were powerful enough to almost conjure up somebody ...

She was conjured.

I just wanted to know about people, and at the time I was interested in social change. I was taking acting class instead of playing basketball. I wouldn't have been very good at basketball; I'm so glad I took acting class!

And when I took that acting class, I thought, My God, look, these people are changing. And if they can change, maybe society can change. So I thought I was studying acting as an entry to social change, a metaphor to explore. And then I tripped over Shakespeare and never came back to some form of social activism.

You don't think of what you do as a form of social activism?

Yes, to some extent, but I think I'm more interested in many sides of the story than an activist is.

I guess that's why I see what you do as social activism: You're always pointing out that there isn't only one point of view, and that's a very radical thought to most people.

I accept, I can see that it is a form of activism, but temperamentally, most of the activists I know are intensely on one side. They have to be, because they're fighting for a cause. If you're fighting to end police brutality, you're not going to spend an afternoon with Daryl Gates, the police chief of Los Angeles, and enjoy it.

Did you?

I did. Not a whole afternoon, but some time.

And why do you think you can enjoy it?

Because I'm there for a different reason.

To empathize?

Yeah. And I understand that I have to do that in order to make the bigger picture; I can't have anybody in my picture who I don't understand. And I only know how to understand people through a certain amount of empathy.

The culture that we live in right now, especially in the last few years, has become very talky. Everybody's always talking, everybody's revealing stuff all the time about their personal lives. Why do you think that's going on and why do you think we don't, at the end of that, know each other better?

Yeah, that's a very good question, and a lot of things came through my head as you said it. For one thing, do you know of the chef Alice Waters? She has a beautiful restaurant in Berkeley [Calif.] called Chez Panisse. And she is probably the grandmother -- the grand master -- of fine dining with organic food as we know it. When I interviewed her for "House Arrest," she talked about eating. She said we have a lot of overweight people in this country because people are eating and eating and eating to be satisfied.

And so, I think, with talking too. I happened to be seeing some daytime television today, I don't usually see it, but you're quite right. What are these people talking about? And why are they coming in public to talk about it?

Probably it gives us an indication of an extraordinary loneliness or alienation that people have, or dissatisfaction they have, with the people closest to them. They must not believe that the people closest to them are hearing them. I mean, just imagine a time when you were a little girl, when you told your grandma or your best friend something that you didn't want anybody to know. And it was particularly satisfying to say it to that one person and that one person only. Why doesn't that have its magic anymore?

What do you think?

I don't know the answer, I just think it tells us that something is awry in terms of the extent to which any of us feel we are prepared for the value of intimacy.

In a way we strip people naked when they come in public. You can't even stand in public space without being stripped naked and disgraced. So it's hard to have dignity. We don't even value dignity, which makes public space a very unhealthy place that most sane people don't even want to be in anymore.

Let's face it, the question that I asked the president of the United States in the Oval Office -- I asked him one question that kept him talking for 35 minutes nonstop -- was, "Mr. President, do you feel you are being treated like a common criminal?" And this was in '97, before Monica Lewinsky broke.

So we're going to have a lack of talent in public space, and then we begin to fill public space with this blah-blah-blah that you're talking about.

Do you think those two things are related?

I think they are. I think public space is so unhealthy, and many people think twice before speaking in public and certainly before giving over their lives to public service. That's going to mean that we still want to have a space, which is filled in public, but it's not going to be filled by greatness anymore for a while. It'll be filled by all this penny-candy conversation rather than a big conversation or several big conversations.

And -- I sort of touch on this in the book -- I think another reason it could be happening is that in the '60s, for good reason, many people began to try to dismantle the throne that the white patrician Protestant man had as Great Explainer. [People said,] "You know what, since you had the nerve to lie about Vietnam, we don't trust you. And then there was Watergate! And not only that -- you lied throughout history! You didn't say enough about white women, and you didn't say enough about black people, and what happened to the Native Americans? So you just move over [laughs] and let us talk for a while."

And I think part of the reason public space is so vulnerable is that we just haven't figured out how to occupy it properly with a bigger "We the People."

In your book, you quote a colleague at Stanford, Marcus Feldman, saying there is no proof that knowledge will make us a better species. How do you feel about that? Do you agree with it?

We kept thinking that schools would be the watering place for this human merger that I've been looking for -- that ignorance was the reason we're so mean to each other. Well, we've got a lot of evidence of a lot of real smart people being real mean!

So it gives me pause. If you consider that there's no proof that knowledge in and of itself, or our ability to pursue information, is going to make us less likely to be extinct, that's pretty sobering news. Then maybe we'd like to do more with our humanness than simply collect information.

You said in your book, "What is unique about America is the extent to which it does, from time to time, pull off being a merged culture." But it seems that what you're after most of the time is talking to people in moments of conflict or moments of deep challenge, not in moments of feeling merged.

I do that because those highlight for us the tragedy of the unmerged and stand as an inspiration for the merge. They're the shadow of the merger. So I represent those to understand how it went wrong, so we can understand more vividly how to make it go right.

Do you think it goes right more than it goes wrong or the other way around?

No, I think it goes wrong a lot, and not just in times of violence or catastrophe. I think it's going wrong now. If we were to start at the kind of schools where I usually teach -- Stanford, or now I'm teaching at NYU -- if we talked to all those students, we would hear about the really wonderful educations they've had to get them there. I teach bright people usually, and talented people, but I don't believe they were all born that way, nor do kids who live in less fortunate circumstances get born violent or drug addicts or any of the things that happen in the course of their lives.

But that's not in our face, because to some extent we live segregated lives. I lived in San Francisco for quite a while, and it would be possible for me, in the route that I took -- driving to Stanford, to my gym, to the health food store, to get coffee and the New York Times in the morning, down to my loft to work -- I could go all day and not see an African-American person, and I'm African-American.

So cities are obviously and not so obviously planned to keep us from experiencing one another. I don't have a project at the moment, but what I'm most interested in pursuing is: How do we get to We? How do we get to Us?

I went to a segregated elementary school, and the way the world is now I couldn't have imagined when I was a girl. But we have a long way to go -- to make Washington a different kind of place, for one thing. The two gentlemen running for office [today] were both bred to be president of the United States, but I don't think a little black girl, even in 2000, is actually thinking about that. So here we are in 2000 and these two guys are very similar in terms of their lineage.

Yeah. Though there is a Jew on the ticket. That's new.

Right. But it didn't happen without comment.

What do you think we can do?

I think we can think differently about our time on earth. We can call for different kinds of spirituality. We can call for anything that is not about material gain, because we've proven that we know how to do that. We know how to get territory. We know how to get material. We know how to get power from other human beings. But in the final analysis, how much do we know about helping one another, how much do we know about caring about one another?

What would it take to make an argument about caring about one another that's a sexy argument, that people want to pay attention to -- that might be in the headlines? What kind of genius will that take? That's my question.

By Nan Goldberg

Nan Goldberg's fiction, book reviews, and author profiles regularly appear in the New York Post, the Newark Star-Ledger and other newspapers and magazines.

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