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Duke University Institute of the Arts Review: An Evening Spent with Anna Deveare Smith Is an Evening Well Spent

February 13, 2003 - Durham, NC:


Editor's Note: The Duke University Institute of the Arts and the Duke Women's Studies Program sponsored Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change (originally advertised as An Evening with Anna Deveare Smith) as part of a two-day symposium entitled "Race and Gender in Global Perspective." The first Jean Fox O'Barr Symposium in Women's Studies asked, How does globalization affect women, minorities, and the poor?

That Anna Deveare Smith began her recent evening at Duke University by channeling the author of Working was more than appropriate; they are, spiritually at least, siblings under the skin. Smith is the Studs Terkel of performers, sharing with our most important oral historian his love of language, his talent for listening, his beloved tape recorder, and his elusive ability to get the shapes and nuances of human speech absolutely right.

But Smith has something even the estimable Studs himself lacks: an almost supernal facility for translating real human speech to the actor's sphere. Yet to invoke the craft of acting in Smith's case seems too restrictive; her gift is less one of acting than becoming. When she allows the voices of others to speak through her, she is as one with the late Quentin Crisp — a practicing member of what he called "the profession of being."

In Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change, presented last Friday, Feb. 7th, at Page Auditorium (by the Women's Studies Program at Duke University and the Council on Women's Studies' Jean Fox O'Barr Symposium in Women's Studies: Race and Gender in Global Perspective), Anne Deveare Smith more than fulfilled her grandfather's eloquent — and, in her case, prescient — belief that "If you say a word often enough, it becomes you."

Smith's landmark shows Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities do not merely explore the after-shocks that accompany momentous cultural events. The essence of these histrionic tours de force lies in their exploration of defining events in modern American life — what Terkel calls the "accumulation of moments that add up to where we are now." Like all great artists, Smith is in search less of answers than of the right questions. She is concerned not simply with the causes of cataclysms, but with the voices, thoughts, and feelings of those who live through them.

Moreover, she employs the laser-like perceptions of a true detective to unearth the rich poetry of human communication. For Smith, "the central question" is "the relationship of language to identity" — what lies between the lines we speak to one another. Quoting Harold Pinter's assertion that "speech is a strategy to cover nakedness," Smith seeks to uncover what we all endeavor to keep clothed.

The men and women Smith embodies speak to the contradictions that permeate our culture, and our shared history. Aside perhaps from Germany under Hitler, no nation in recent history kept more slaves than "the land of the free," and it is emblematic of our schizophrenic national identity that the man who penned our most important statement on liberty was himself a slaveholder. Fittingly, Smith evoked Ken Burns' impassioned panegyric on the subject of Jefferson's relationship to Sally Hemmings. The question of consent, he rightly contends, is utterly moot: "He owned her, goddamnit!" (I only wish Burns' own Jefferson project had contained a trace of such passion.)

Smith's Snapshots included such candids as Alexis Herman, Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor, recounting the harrowing story her father's beating by the Klan as she listened, huddled on the floor of the car with his gun; an African-American heart patient unable to believe that a cardiologist would bother giving a black man a transplant; a Maryland prisoner recalling her own complicity in the murder, by her abusive husband, of her teenaged daughter; a Korean-American shop owner in Los Angeles desperately trying to empathize with her black neighbors' joy at finding a justice that will always elude her; and an Angelino describing how a verdict could be reached in the civil case that followed the riots only after her fellow jurors reached the point at which they could confess their own personal guilts.

If the overarching subject of Smith's art is the crucible of race, its expression eschews the polemical. Perhaps because she listens so intently, Smith's work is refreshingly free of judgment and often — despite the superb traces of humor which decorate its contours — utterly heartbreaking. The promise of America, so seldom delivered to those outside her patriarchy, encourages a level of hope so high that the fall can kill; Smith's plays remind us that there is a Crown Heights in every American city just waiting to explode.

Anna Deveare Smith believes that her work allows her to physicalize what is, for her, an essential question: "How is it that you're you and I'm me?" In the evening's Q & A session, Smith described the reaction of studio executives to her proposed film about the besieged Chicago housing development Cabrini Green: Where's the hope?

If only the Hollywood suits could learn to listen half as well as she does.