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.