Actress, playwright, and performance artist Anna Deavere
Smith bears witness in her works to one particular place and time: the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, on the eve of the millenium. Her solo performance series, On the Road: A Search for American Character, an ongoing chronicle not only performed but also conceived, developed, and written by Smith, has evolved since its inception in 1983 into more than a dozen anthology pieces derived from over 600 interviews she has herself conducted (see fig. 35). Each of the interview subjects chosen by Smith has been involved in an event having seminal bearing upon social developments such as intercultural relations, sexual politics, and black identity. On the Road, taking its parts together, represents Smith's exploration of the "American character" and the democratic experiment that is the United States.174 Her material is language; her method, to study her taped interviews over and over "until I wear the words."75 In performance, Smith reproduces with uncanny precision the many and often contradictory voices she has heard, including their accents and idiosyncratic cadences as well as the uncomfortable silences, mutterings, and ramblings that naturally accompany everyday speech. Smith also recreates the unique physiognomic traits and bodily gestures or mannerisms belonging to the person whose voice and words have been recorded (fig. 36).'76 One after the next, Smith performs captivatingly exact portrayals of real individuals, expressing a vast range of emotions from rage, pain, and anxiety to sympathy, resignation, and acquiescence.
Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn. And among those who have written down the tales, it is the great ones whose written version differs least from the speech of the many nameless storytellers.
I have been creating one woman shows out of interviews. I do the interviews and then perform all of the interviewees. The resulting performance is meant to capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person myself. Often, the shows are built around a specific controversial and timely event or series of events.
-Anna Deavere Smith '73
Two of her best known works focus on moments of sheer crisis: Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (the fourteenth On the Road piece) revolves around the conflicts that erupted in August 1991 between the Orthodox Jewish and AfricanAmerican/Caribbean American communities of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, while Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (the fifteenth piece) retells the events of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising that followed the acquittal of four white police officers charged in the beating of a black man, Rodney King.
Fires in the Mirror is a collage of twenty-six characters fashioned from fifty interviews Smith conducted in Crown Heights, where Hassidic Jews and African Americans and Caribbean Americans, who, though living in close physical proximity to each other, are worlds apart in their customs and beliefs. On August 19, 1991, Gavin Cato, a seven year -old Caribbean American boy from the neighborhood, was killed and his cousin Angela seriously injured by a runaway car in the motorcade of the Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the spiritual leader of the Lubavitcher Hassidim. For the following three days, the community was wracked by violent street demonstrations which led to, among other incidents, the retaliatory fatal stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum, a twentynine year-old Hassidic student. Smith, with an utterly even handed compassion for the predicament of both sides, recounts in her performance this painful event through a host of discrepant, cacophonous, and even antagonistic voices, which by way of the artist's deft transcript editing and character juxtapositions on stage are made to interlock and communicate with each other to form, in Smith's words, "the illusion of dialogue." Words are balanced between the two groups in both power and cutting brevity when Smith matches her portrait of Minister Conrad Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, and his account of black slavery, with Letly Cottin Pogrebin, author of Deborah, Golda and Me, and her anecdote of how she learned of the Holocaust from an uncle. Moving from one character to another using a minimal change of props and costumes (donning in turn a yarmulke, a sweater, a wig, an African kente cloth) Smith allows for the uninterrupted airing of voices that range between the famous (or infamous) and the utterly unknown and mostly unheard.
Twilight: Los Angeles gives equal and eloquent voice to an even more complex human landscape of colliding ethnic groups (African Americans, Latinos, Asians, whites), all involved to some degree in the extreme civil disorder that followed in the wake of the April 29, 1992, jury verdict in the Rodney King beating case the real-time image of the beating itself burned into public consciousness through the continuous televised replay of the amateur videotape on which it was captured. The collective portrait Smith projects of Los Angeles, the most racially and culturally diverse city in the United States and, for many, the paradigm for this nation's polyethnic future, is compelling and unsparing in its details and consequent emotional force. From two hundred and twenty interviews conducted over a period of eight months, Smith developed twenty-six portrayals of widely divergent individuals, each of her characters espousing a distinct and passionately heartfelt position. Among them: Reginald Denny, the white truck driver who suffered a heinous beating also caught on a video aired throughout the United States.
Elvira Evers, a pregnant Panamanian cashier who survived a random gunshot wound, her unborn baby clipped on its elbow by the stray bullet; Theodore Briseno, one of the four L.A.P.D. officers acquitted in King's beating; Angela King, Rodney King's aunt; Mrs. Young Soon Han, a Korean liquor store owner whose business was looted; and Twilight Bey, a gang youth who negotiated a truce in 1992 between two of Los Angeles's most notorious and violent gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. 178 Finally, during the actual performance of Twilight, Smith exhibits excerpts from related TV footage, thus identifying the media itself as a critically powerful actor in the maelstrom of events and an actor with its own strongly biased points of view. In contrast to the video sound bites, however, Smith's work is constructed to resist relaying information quickly and tidily. Rather, her performance represents a series of individuals' groping efforts to give voice or articulation to and thereby understand the seemingly irrational human acts engendered by a crisis and the anger and anguish inevitably accompanying them. Through everyday language we are taken by Smith's characters to a point at which emotions run so deep that we, along with our conductors, are at a loss for words to describe the experience. 179 This stoppage is the breakdown of syntax and readily coherent sense found at the heart of any profound emotional trauma. Yet, as Smith recognizes, it is the very inability to glibly give voice that may serve as a ground for the discovery of a new, more subtle, and more encompassing tongue.
In any one performance work, Smith's individual portraits gradually give way to a larger picture of the prevailing social forces and cultural constructs that have informed (and continue to inform) each of her characters' attitudes, views, and actions: forces that may be invisible to these characters themselves, but which through Smith's skillful distillation become as audible and visible to us as the human voices and faces the artist so precisely depicts. The forces to which Smith above all points are the history and current state of race relations in the United States; and the message Smith specifically conveys through her epic ventriloquism is the inadequacy of our language(s) to sustain a constructive dialogue about race. Was what happened in Crown Heights a "revolt" or a "pogrom?" Did Los Angeles experience an "uprising" or a "riot?" To agree on a single definition would require not merely a shared vocabulary, but more importantly, a common perspective. What Smith's works make irresistibly clear is the urgent need for a vocabulary and a vision that can more accurately assist us in facing, discussing, and understanding race issues. In the words of Robert Sherman, as played by Smith, "We probably have 70 different kinds of [words for] bias, prejudice, racism, and discrimination, but it's not in our mindset to be clear about it. So I think that we have sort of a lousy language on the subject, and that is a reflection of our unwillingness to deal with it honestly and to sort it out. I think we have a very, very bad language." However inadequate, our vernacular speech is the linguistic instrument chosen by Smith from which to shape a "language for discussing difference"; and for her, "the only way we find that language is by talking in itnot about itand talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak." Smith's artistry lies in her first locating and then editing and carefully juxtaposing raw material, and, when performing, in her uncanny ability to erase herself she is usually barefoot, dressed neutrally in black slacks and white shirt in order for her performance to cross more effortlessly boundaries of color, gender, age, race, religion, and social class.
The fugue of voices in Smith's On The Road heralds a new type of mapping or spatial visualization with which to cross the "racial frontier." 184 It sketches a course that has no fixed boundaries or foregone conclusions one that is necessarily incomplete, fluid, and ever questing, because it lies precisely in that "zone of direct contact with developing reality" 185 in which (in 1995) "the cultural definition of the polyethnic [United States] of the year 2000 has barely begun.
Fig. 35. Anna Deavere Smith in South Central Los Angeles, February 1993
Fig. 36. Anna Deavere Smith as use of farce expert Sergeant Charles Duke in Twilight: Los Angeles, 7992 at the Mark Taper Forum, June 13 July 18, 1993
Like the classic storyteller, Smith gives "counsel, less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding": a counsel which, when "woven into the fabric of real life... is wisdom."'
While creating a forum for a many voiced dialogue founded on a common humanity, Smith's works continue to insist on the absolute individuality of their human characters. In a sense, her performances positively recover from the anonymity of day to day existence what had been only negatively dragged forward by a cataclysmic event: specific, isolated, and denominated individuals who in their very uniqueness the viewer comes to recognize as fundamentally akin to himself or herself. This empathy allows us to listen to the struggle of Smith's characters, which we must now address a struggle by means of language to transform inculcated attitudes, or ideology, and to arrive at a rehabilitative understanding not only of events, but also of their human agents. Smith's interest lies not in achieving a unified or signature voice, but in highlighting a sociala "vocal"_complexity. Her goal is to communicate both the essence of the individual and the essentially collective character of our place and age. Returned by her works to the particulars of person and place and time (the former her cast of characters, the latter the late twentieth century United States), we are given an opportunity by which to begin deciphering the deeper forceslegal, social, cultural, and personal that govern our world. Smith, in baring these forces, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic about their future metamorphosis, but she is, and asks us to be, deeply engaged.