Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Anna Deavere Smith's Craft

(crossposted at The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Anna Deavere Smith describes her life-long project as an attempt to theorize the links between language and identity. She came to this realization about the fundamental nature of her actorly goals while still studying her craft (several decades ago) at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Last night, Smith presented excerpts from her most recent one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, and she tried to explain to a packed-house just how her creative process works.

For those who don't know Anna Deavere Smith, she is famous for what has been called "documentary theater," a genre that, for her, entails interviewing people from various walks of life (interviews organized around a particular theme or event) and staging those juxtaposed interviews as monologues in critical conversation with one another.

Fires in the Mirror dealt with 1991's Crown Heights riots (between Afro-Caribbeans and Orthodox Jews in that small section of Brooklyn) and included interviews with rioters, African-American activists (such as Al Sharpton), rabbis, city officials, local residents, and other interested parties with a spin on the conflagration. Twilight: Los Angeles dealt with that 1992 riot/uprising, bringing excerpts from her interviews to life on stage as a way to demonstrate the many angles from which Angelenos and others made sense of that public tragedy.

Let Me Down Easy is a commentary on death and dying in America, on the state of health care and on how the actions of health care providers are over-determined by cultural assumptions that get powerfully exposed when Smith places them on conspicuous theatrical display. Given the extent to which our current political conversation pivots on the "health care debate" and its political fallout (including the election of a Republican senator in MA), Smith's material is amazing, even uncanny, for its timeliness.

Smith's power stems from the fact that her performative skills allow her to conjure up her interviewees in all of their demographic and idiosyncratic specificity, seemingly out of thin air, using their words, speaking styles, and bodily gestures to plop these beings unto the stage with an almost occult-like immediacy. She also does a commendable job giving voice to many different swaths of the political spectrum, placing opposing viewpoints in conversation such that each side of the debate is rendered with nuanced humanity. Alas, if only our everyday political discourse followed a similar organizing principle. Indeed, one of her projects as a scholar-artists (she is, after all, an academic: University Professor at NYU) is to promote robust conversations across ideological divides. (She is the founding director of Harvard University's Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue.)

As someone who spent the last few month of 2009 beginning my own attempt to think about staging ethnographic data for theatrical presentation (first, this year, at academic conferences and then, much later down the line, in a full-fledged one-man show), it was encouraging and instructive to hear Smith describe her approach to such work. "Documentary theater" is a valuable example of what "ethnographic theater" could look like--and even of what anthropological theatricality might usefully define itself against. Several ethnographers have already begun to dabble in a version of what might be called "ethnographic theater," which is yet another way to continue ongoing discussions within anthropology about the political and poetic implications of ethnographic representation and cultural critique. It is also a different way to think about questions of observation, embodiment and intersubjectivity.

Anna Deavere Smith was an inspiration last night, and not just for scholars interested in harnessing the electrical powers of theatrical space for their own scholastic purposes.

Smith juggles her "documentary theater" work with stints on shows like NBC's The West Wing and HBO's Nurse Betty. That stuff pays the bills, she says, but documentary theater is really her passion. It is also a way for her to show that social identities only emerge as fully meaningful and culturally intelligible once we are willing to slip our feet into other people's shoes, to wrap our mouths and minds around other people's words.


Laurian said...

Showtime's Nurse Jackie, not HBO's Nurse Betty. She is the pensive, complex, witty administrator Gloria Akalitus. Wonderful post, I've been a fan of Anna Deavere Smith since Fires in the Mirror.

susan said...

saw let me down easy in boston. so good. evoked so much from the audience and involved an interactive audience piece too.

i've got training in both anthropology and in my earlier life electrical engineering. but that makes sense to me because in the mathematics of information and communication, some problems can't be "solved" in the usual way in time and space. you need to transfer them to a new frame of reference to get the insights that suggest a path towards resolution.

that's the way anna uses the stage, to take the so-called "data" or "fieldnotes" into a new frame of reference to bring it into a different kind of light.

for me she follows in an intellectual geneaology of doing this that includes raymond williams, who i love for his courageous spirit. as flawed as his novels are, i really appreciate the process of thinking and analyzing through a completely different form --- that puts people in relationship trying to live out the insights and their contradictions.

mostly i lurk, but like your blog a lot, john. my ethnographic research is on what and how people learn as they trying to make change in their communities. i studied the new majority in boston for five years for my diss. but i am a community worker more than an academic so am not sure my research will ever see the light of day. anyway, your blog keeps me in touch with the scholar side of me. thanks.

Marian said...

How did you choose the corresponding pictures of Deavere Smith for this blog and the Chronicle post? Interestingly, at least to me, she seems darker in this photo than in the one used on the Chronicle site. Was this your doing, or theirs? I ask because I wonder if Deavere Smith would be received/perceived/interpreted as the same kind of theatrical/performative everywoman (and everyman, for that matter) were she a dark, 'unambiguously black' woman instead of light and racially ambiguous. And given the mention of Nurse Betty, it also raises the question of if she would have the same acting resume in Hollywood, given the realities of non-colorblind casting.)

It's a general question about the (un)intelligibility of suffering (especially racialized suffering, which all suffering de facto is, even if not recognized as such because some bodies-and their suffering--go unmarked and thus come to be seen as universal and non-racial). Whose suffering is seen as understandable, when, why, under what circumstances? And whose isn't, and is thus seen as disposasble, irrational, expendable? To the extent that Deveare Smith has so powerfully channeled others' experiences, I wonder what role the facticity of her body may 'play' in all of this.

Marian said...

" identities only emerge as fully meaningful and culturally intelligible once we are willing to slip our feet into other people's shoes, to wrap our mouths and minds around other people's words. "

Also, Dr. Jackson, you make a very provocative and intriguing point above in mentioning the 'willingness' to slip our feet into other people's shoes, to wrap our minds and mouths around other people's words. Provocative because of this: What if others aren't in fact willing to do so, and/*because* their very being in the world is fundamentally predicated on *not* having to? This question relates to your question of racial v. racist in a previous blog post, as well as to posts like 'What is Pat Robertson Really Saying About Haiti'?

Especially in connection with your book on racial paranoia, the site from which one can link to this blog, it seems to me that there is an interesting conjunction here between the quote excerpted above and the larger answer to why it is so hard to talk meaningfully, productively, respectfully, and honestly about race, especially in relation to white/racial privilege. For many who benefit from dominant racial inequalities/hierarchies, there is both an unwillingness and a fundamental *inability* to put oneself in another's proverbial shoes (and by inability I mean *ontologically* and phenomenologically, as a comment on the limits of will and agency: as in, I can will myself to fly by flapping my arms, but it will *never* actually happen; again, back to the comment cum query I posed about the facticity of the body).

To 'flesh' things out, as it were, I offer three links that should be taken together, considered in relation to each other, just as people are:

As I was watching the first, I was struck by the extent to which the rash of 'politically incorrect' gaffes of late by Harry Reid, Ron Blagejovich, and Chris Matthews, in relation to Obama's 'blackness,' *all* index a whiteness constituted in opposition to blackness such that whiteness is precisely about *not* being black (in addition to other oppositions/*exclusions*), and that the experience of whiteness is precisely about *never* having to have the experiences of stigmatization specific to blackness (in particular, and non-whiteness in general) such that there becomes a phenomenological barrier to understanding--at the level of embodied experience, not via analogy or thought experiment or extrapolation--the experience of the little girl in the You Tube clip, and how such an experience (especially during the formative years of childhood), 'colors'--quite literally!--one's understanding and experience of the world...

Marian said...

previous comment cont.:

White privilege is invisible for whites to such a degree that even 'unpacking it' doesn't completely allow one to understand what it would be like to live without it. Even a temporary cosmetic foray into blackness (a la Black Like Me) won't work because one *always* does so with the knowledge that such a transformation is *temporary*: to enlist a flawed example, it is the difference between knowing one is sentenced to serve life in prison, and knowing that one has only gotten 5 years. (And no, I am not saying being black is a prison, though I know exactly what kinds of comments this post will elicit in general, and the preceding comment in particular will elicit ... and this is precisely my point.)

Whereas it is uncontroversial to admit that one has advantage in a world where one can walk over a person in a wheel chair, the same admission of Durkheimian *social fact* will not occur around racial privilege for most: the very 'willingness' to understand what it is like not to have white privilege, and especially to be understood as 'Black,' will not occur. Especially now that Barack Obama will be trotted out as 'proof' of our post-raciality: and those who do will say, 'but we have a black president!', blind not to color but to the irony that we *still* use the one-drop rule of blackness such that though he is half-black and half-white Obama could *never* get away with claiming to be our *white* president--and would not be seen as such by the majority of American's if he tired to, despite Chris Matthew's and Ron Blagejovich's comments.

My point is this: It seems that they real work to be done if we are ever going to get to the 'post-racial' Promised Land is to start by accepting that 'racial' is in fact 'racist.' That is to say, in a world in which people with racial privilege are not in fact willing or able to talk about this privilege, and put themselves in others' shoes, like little Marley from the You Tube link, we can't claim to be post-racial, or kid ourselves (no pun intended) that perceived racial differences aren't in fact rooted in racism: in a racial--and racist--taxonomy that understands and marks whiteness as purity and exclusion from blackness (i.e. the one-drop rule), and that allows some children (and adults) to *always* see themselves--people who look like them--as positively represented in the world, while other children do not such that some little children (and, eventually, adults) are seen as scary by virtue of the color of their skin, not the content of their characters.

Perhaps, then, the real 'willingness' should not be in wanting to put oneself into another's shoes, or inhabit another's words, but in realizing that one actually has the privilege (and disadvantage, given the transformative potential of empathy, not just sympathy) of never quite being able to get there.

John L. Jackson, Jr. said...

thanks for the correction, Laurian. I showed my pay-cable preference with that slip.

susan, i appreciate your thoughtful response. (i went from electrical engineering to anthro, too. though i have forgotten 98% of the former.) would love to hear more about your work.

and Marian, this is a powerful series of comments. I'm tempted to re-post them as a main entry--if you don't mind. let me know.

susan said...

no THANK YOU john. what a hoot you are a former ee too. i work for a very socially innovative program that gets boston youth into stem and onto college.

the diss was "prophetic naming as informal education: decolonizing the imagination with boston's new majority" i followed the new majority, a coalition/movement of boston's people of color as they did organizing to unite the black, latino, asian communities in boston. interesting stuff. grace lee boggs, mica pollock and wendy luttrell were my committee, which was pretty cool and they pushed a good idea or two out of me.

Marian said...

I would be honored to have them re-posted. Thank you for the compliment.

Breeze Harper said...

What a start of a great dialogue.

Marian makes very interesting and thought provoking points to such a complex and often under-researched topic.

I am a cultural geographer and this field has the same type of history of methodology and methods problems that anthropology has (basically ignoring how raciazliation/race/racism affect one's consciousness and interpretation of their research, who they research, why they research.)

In reference to Smith and her light/ambiguous color that Marian refers to, I too often think about how my work is received, as I am an African American female who "passes the brown bag test" and I have been told that I speak "culturally white" and am "not ghetto" (don't even get me started with that, as that's another topic on it's own to discuss). As I attempt to speak to a largely white audience about my work in critical food geographies, critical race theory, and black feminisms (as it applies to the vegan movement), I wonder what about "me" makes me accepted in some circles while rejected in others circles. As I reflect on my newly emerging academic career as a writer and speaker, I find myself literally shifting in a way that makes me appear "less threatening" to largely white audiences when I speak about "whiteness within vegan spaces." I have found that I have modified my voice to not sound "too angry" to white audiences, make sure I'm wearing the "right" clothes, and try to create a body language that is acceptable to the racial white status quo. In the past few months, as I prepare for my book release and lecture circuit, I have been trying to convince myself to not cater to the racial status quo's emotional needs and to present myself the way I WANT TO. But it's tricky and I find myself thoroughly stressed out about how I am read as a lighter skinned slim young black woman when conveying the experience/traumas/stresses/oppositional voices of black female vegans in white vegan world. Marian, you ask, "Whose suffering is seen as understandable, when, why, under what circumstances? And whose isn't, and is thus seen as disposasble, irrational, expendable? To the extent that Deveare Smith has so powerfully channeled others' experiences, I wonder what role the facticity of her body may 'play' in all of this." Though I am early in my career, I am realizing that the collective suffering of black females in the USA is understandable only to the extent of how I myself can convey it in an emotionally accomodating way for the collectivity of white [vegans]. But then I enter the realm of wondering if the book and project and myself will be fetishized if that makes sense. And once again, I'm wondering how my "cultural white bodily mannerisms and voice" play into this. I hope I am making sense here.

Marian said...

Breeze brings up an interesting point about being told one is "not ghetto." I have generally been told this too, given my dress and speech patterns, and my being from CT and having gone to an Ivy League college. But this assessment of how 'ghetto' one is is very contextual, especially when one does not pass the paper bag test, or even come close.
I found this out recently in an interaction with the police in which an unscrupulous white male lied about my being from 'the ghetto' so as to have me racially profiled/get revenge for my speaking out about his unethical behavior. So, even though I am not from the 'inner city' and never speak 'Negro dialect' (cue Harry Reid) and have many times been told I am an Oreo and 'not really black' (including by a white male *anthropologist* from working-class Chicago, like Blagejovich), the police had no problem believing that I was in fact just another violent Angry Black Woman from 'the ghetto'--despite my also being 'clean, bright, and articulate' (cue Joe Biden). Yes, as with the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. incident, the police can see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe, even given actual facts to the contrary.

And this gets at my previous comments about the facticity of bodies and the assumptions about blackness that allow for stigmatization that whites do not have to worry about. (Dark) black people are always already assumed to be from 'the ghetto,' relative to implicit biases about blackness and class origins. This was one of the things that struck me about the Sotamayor hearings, and something I didn't see anyone writing about at the time: that as much as Sotamayor's personal history could be read as the embodiment of the American Dream, media coverage of it also reinforced stereotypes about Latinos (and blacks) having origins in 'the ghetto,' even with Yale degrees. So if a racist bully wants to get a police officer to view me unsympathetically, all he has to do is say I am from 'the ghetto'--even if I am not--and all my cultural dispositions, habitus, hexis, speech patterns, etc. will cease to matter, especially given that I am 'unambiguously black.' Like wise, anything I have to say about white privilege that is too frank and makes most white people uncomfortable will be understood as my being 'angry,' no matter how politely and respectfully I try to make my point--especially as I am dark (let's not forget the 'scary little black girl' You Tube video I linked to in my earlier comment). Bodies matter, and the same words out of a different body will just not be received/perceived/interpreted in the same way. Such is the (racialized) world we live in.

Unpalatable as it was, Harry Reid told the truth: too bad his 'political incorrectness' wasn't a teachable moment for productively engaging the concept of white/racial privilege and racial hierarchy, especially by the Commander in Chief.

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