Anna Deavere Smith: “Untitled” in Austin

I’ve been following Anna Deavere Smith’s career since the 1980s, when she participated in the Women and Theatre Program (WTP) meetings that took place before the professional conference of theatre educators every year. Anna was then a freelance actor and teacher based at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Like so many other women performers of color, she was scratching out a living, finding work in regional theatres around the country, picking up teaching gigs here and there, going to conferences, making connections. She was also just starting work on her “On the Road” series, through which she uses interviews to create stories of communities she visits to perform back to them. Her work with “On the Road” investigated American character, and often focused on communities in conflict.

In 1988, in fact, she performed a piece for and about the WTP at the meetings in San Diego. She’d interviewed many of us, in person or by phone, and knit our opinions and stories together in a rather controversial tapestry of images and representations that actually incited a fractious public argument about the Program and its work. Her shamanic skills helped us channel our own issues from the private to the public, to put them onstage for examination and dispute. However upset some participants felt, the moment became historic for the organization. (See my book, Presence and Desire for an accounting of this event).

In 1993, Anna saw her first national success with Fires in the Mirror, her one-woman show about the conflict in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, between the Lubavitcher Hasidim and the African American residents of the small neighborhood. The chief rebbe’s motorcade had run a red light and struck and killed Gavin Cato, an African American boy from the neighborhood. In apparent retribution, a group of African Americans killed Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jew studying with his family in the area. The two events set the community against itself, and prompted physically and verbally violent exchanges that required political and legal city intervention.

Not long after the turbulent events, Anna visited Crown Heights to speak with people from the community, Hasidim and African Americans alike. She also interviewed other New York luminaries and a series of scholars and politicians whose views on the events lent insight or controversy. In her inimitable style, Anna tapes her informants and then learns their words verbatim, performing their vocal inflections and their gestures, assisted only by simple costume pieces and a few props. InFires in the Mirror, for example, Orthodox Jewish women’s remarks and stories bump up against African American activist Rev. Al Sharpton and others, all played through Anna’s commanding, singular presence.

With Fires’ success, Anna went on to collect stories of the revolt staged in Los Angeles after the Rodney King beating trial verdict was handed down. In Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 (2000), she performed an even wider range of ethnicities and across genders, as she interviewed and shared the words of Korean grocers, white police officers, African American activists, and many other LA citizens involved in or touched by the events.

House Arrest, Anna’s next piece, was less successful as a solo performance, perhaps because of its more diffuse focus. The piece looked at the American presidency, taking on both historical and contemporary events and characters to weave a tapestry of the office and those who’ve served in it. The piece’s politics are more overt, and yet at the same time, its perspective gets a bit blurry, given Anna’s desire to represent such a range of affiliations, commitments, and controversies. This piece, unlike her earlier two, has developed a production life as more than a solo show; regional theatres around the country have produced it with casts of various sizes, races, genders, and ethnicities. I saw an early workshop production of the play with students at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where it seemed to suffer from the absence of Anna’s magnetism at its center. The script meandered without a central point, and the young performers seemed much less virtuosic at taking on Anna’s impersonation skills.

In a later incarnation of the piece, I saw Anna perform House Arrest solo at the Public Theatre in New York. Here, her canny ability to capture the essence of those whose words she shares, and her facility with creating a kind of social gestus for each of her informants, helped the piece cohere. But still, the more powerful, singular thematics of the earlier two pieces were missing from a story about a more scattered sense of power and social structure. Ironically, the piece performed most palpably Anna’s relationship to power; each interviewee seemed evidence of her own access, rather than a key piece of insight or information into the workings of the presidency. (See John Simon’s rather uncharitable review of the production, and Random House for the published text of the play.)

The Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin produced House Arrest as a multi-performer ensemble play a year or two ago, and began a relationship with Anna that’s brought her to town several times to workshop new material. This last May 18 – 21, for example, she performed an untitled work-in-progress about the medical establishment, public health, and, as she remarked in a talk-back after the performance I saw on May 20, the “resilience and vulnerability of the human body.” The piece-in-progress is ambitious and a bit unwieldy, but displays Anna’s remarkable curiosity about people all over the globe and her interest in knitting disparate experiences together to juxtapose their similarities and their differences. In this piece, for example, she offers the words and gestures of African healers and orphanage directors, and American athletic coaches, dancers, bull-riders, oncologists, physicists, politicians, physicians, patients, runners, movie critics, and male escorts, as well as more ordinary people caught up in the complexities of health and disease in some of its local and global manifestations.

Anna selects stories for their metaphorical, as well as their theatrical potential, sharing paragraphs or a few lines from each informant she impersonates. Her intimacy with her subjects means that we hear the voices of people who rarely speak in public forums, from the parents of cancer patients to their doctors, who talk in reflexive modes atypical for their public selves. Anna moves from the famous—former Texas governor Ann Richards, for example—to the more ordinary person and manages to imbue all of their words and stories with truth and dignity. Commanding the three-quarter stage in a white shirt and black pants, over which she layered minimal costume pieces to signal character shifts, Anna held her script in hand. The text, in fact, was continually being written and edited during her visit, transforming daily based on interviews she continued to conduct through the last Austin performance.

Some of her informants were local, based on interviews she conducted at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston or with Austinites; others were with people like dancer/choreographer Elizabeth Streb, whose company is based in New York, or with Zackie Achmat, who runs the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa. The rhythms of their speech, through which Anna builds her intimate characterizations, changed rapidly from South and Central African to New York to Central and West Texas and back again. Anna’s facility to get to the root (and the truth) of a voice was perhaps most apparent in the familiar characters: Ann Richards, whose story about protecting her “chi” as she undergoes radiation therapy for esophageal cancer was hilarious and identifiable; Mack Brown, head football coach at UT, who’s something of a local hero; and Joel Siegel, the ABC News movie critic, all prompted laughs of recognition and delight as they seemed to appear in the room with Anna as their host.

Hearing those moments click made me think about how recognition works in performance. That is, watching Anna perform known people, and hearing spectators connect with their voices and their gestures, seems to give people quite a lot of pleasure. Her impersonations of the less well known put her performance more firmly in the realm of conventional theatre, creating as she did characters whose inaccessibility to our knowledge made them fictions of her making for us in this present moment. Their unfamiliarity, however, made them no less beguiling–they simply compelled our attention differently. One of the sweetest parts of the evening was knowing that one of Anna’s Texas informants was in the audience—Dr. Kazumichi Suzuki, a physicist at MD Anderson’s Proton Therapy Center, actually sat behind me, and blushed with pleasure when Anna came into the audience after the performance to shake his hand. That mix of the present and the absent, the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown, creates the excitement and frisson of Anna’s performances.

Her presence in this workshop production was also explicitly marked, in a rather Brechtian fashion, by her announcement of each person before she assumed their character. These simple identifiers worked almost as placards, allowing us to look in a more historicized way at the people she performed. At the same time, we could mark the moment when Anna announced them as herself and trace it to the moment she began speaking in character, and feel privileged to watch this performer at work. In those brief transitional moments, Anna demonstrated that an external (or outside in) approach to character can be as effective as the psychological (or inside out) method still touted by too many actor training programs.

Anna’s impersonations were layered, specific, revelatory, not only in how they captured something of the person speaking, but in how they accumulated into the story she wanted to tell, shaped and sharpened by her own keen intelligence and commitment to the issues. The stagehands moved around her, rearranging chairs and hand props like Bunraku attendants. Her method allowed us to note her own charisma, her own presence, and the transmutability of her own rubber face and flexible body to stand in the shoes of another with respect and humility. (See Chapter Three of my book, Utopia in Performance, for further discussion of Anna’s ability to stand in another’s experience.)

What was more evident in this workshop production than in any other piece of Anna’s work I’ve seen her perform was her overriding humanism, her willingness to touch another’s soul with her own to re-enliven them onstage. Not one of her informants was belittled in this piece. While some were played for the inherent comedy of their words (like Richards, who can’t miss being funny, and Brent Williams, a bull-rider who spoke with Anna about toughness of body and mind), each was played with deep respect for who they are, what they do, and how they think, speak, and feel.

The production also proceeded without setting up a binary of good and evil on which too much performance remains based. The medical establishment here was not the enemy, but a conglomeration of individuals working for the common good through various means. Anna establishes a commonality among her subjects that preserves, rather than levels, their differences, and lets us appreciate each of them for their work and their indefatigable commitment.

While I applaud Anna’s refusal to reduce her subjects to simplistic binaries, this work-in-progress has some of the diffuseness of House Arrest as a result. The play has no central conflict, no explicit sides to rehearse, the way that Fires in the Mirror debates the literally black-and-white perspectives of Crown Heights, or Twilight LA’s agon ranges from the police and those victimized by looting to the people of color appalled at their continuing victimization by a race-biased legal system. In the current work, conflict is staged between bodies and disease, or bodies and their own mechanical and spiritual limits, rather than between people.

But her refusal to instantiate a binary allowed Anna to stage the audience talkback as a public forum on ethics—the ethics of death and dying, of medical intervention into life and death, of the government’s role in safeguarding people’s right to control their own bodies and their destinies. In the discussion the night I saw the performance, Anna addressed the embodiedness of grief, and asked how we might persuade governments themselves to grieve. Sympathetic feeling, she suggested, might inspire humane and empathetic action. Although some spectators disagreed, the invitation to discuss such issues in a public forum—talking about public feelings as well as public health policies—offered a refreshing slant on issues of medical, personal, and political ethics.

The Zach Scott Theatre Center is hoping to bring Anna back in the 2006-2007 season to continue her work, which will no doubt eventually find its way into production at the Public Theatre or somewhere else in New York. Zach Scott’s willingness to engage their audiences with the issues of the day is commendable—since I’ve lived in Austin these last six years, my theatre-going has been graced by occasions for reflection with other spectators, as well as the actors and artists who participate in each production. Extending the moment of performance into a communal “cool down,” in which the audience resettles itself around a tacticle embrace of the evening’s tired but energized performers, allows us to publicly honor the evening’s work—the work to create and to make meaning of the performance. These moments—like Anna Deavere Smith’s work—encourage us to confront and respect each other’s humanity. I’m always grateful for the opportunity.

With thanks,
The Feminist Spectator

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