When people speak playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith listens. Her latest one-woman show captures reactions opinions, and feelings about the L.A. riots.
April 1993
By Richard Rayner

In 1990 then‑LAPD Chief Daryl Gates told a Senate Judiciary Committee that "casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot." Some liberals, he notes in his autobiography, have such a cynical view of the police that they thought he meant it. Shame on them. What he really meant, he explains, was that America wasn't acting effectively enough on the drug issue, so he made an outrageous statement because "I thought‑now here's an opportunity to get some attention for a very serious problem." Gates himself was the son of a drunk and the father of a known drug user, and so, predictably, reporters asked him if he intended to take out his son and have him shot. "My son," he replied, "is not a casual drug user… He's an addict. I don't need to shoot him."

Here was a man with a dazzling, albeit not always fortunate, flair for the sound bite. He referred to black drug dealers as Vietcong. Part of his strategy, he said, was "to put a lot of police officers on the street and harass people and make arrests for inconsequential kinds of things." And black‑and‑white police cars were known to LAPD officers as "blacks and normals" ever since he said the reason so many blacks died from the carotid chokehold‑the controversial technique once used to detain suspects‑was that "their veins and arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."

Way to go! Chief Gates, seemingly a gargoyle from Hogarth or Balzac, in fact loomed much larger than any fictional character; often frightening, sometimes compassionate, other times clownish, he was a fascinating mix of smarts and stupidity; compassion, coldness, and charisma; almost unbelievable egomania; and power. He was also that rarity‑a public figure so unguarded, so unaware of the potency of words that he was constantly disclosing his true nature. His foot was attached to his mouth as if by a trick device concealed in the trouser leg of his black LAPD uniform. He had no idea that language is an event, that words count, that voice is character, and, as such, he has to be a happy gift to the playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, for it is words, and through them character, that she captures. She bases her pieces on taped interviews with people involved in a public event. The interviews are shaped into a collage of monologues, which she then performs, playing all the characters herself.

"Language is a combat between individuals," she says, "a combat with the self. Language betrays us. It doesn't always do what we want it to do. I love that disarray. It's where we're human." In last year's Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, a sellout success at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York (and to be aired by American Playhouse on PBS on April 28), she played 29 people. Switching effortlessly from male to female, Jew to black, street kid to intellectual, grief and rage to hilarity, Smith gave a kaleidoscopic picture of the three nights of confrontation between blacks and Hasidic Jews that followed the running down of a seven‑year‑old black boy and the subsequent murder of a rabbinical student in August 1991. Ironically, the show previewed Friday, May 1, 1992, two days after four white police officers‑Laurence Powell, Ted Briseno, Timothy Wind, and Sergeant Stacey Koon‑were found not guilty of unlawfully beating Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots began. Those riots are the basis of her latest, as‑yet‑untitled piece, another urban "Rashomon," the 14th in a series she calls "On the Road: A Search for American Character."

Smith, 42, has combined writing and performance with a teaching career. Currently, she's an assistant professor of drama at Stanford University. For the most part, her conversation is composed, analytical, very much Smith‑the‑professor, and notably free of disarray. Then suddenly she'll laugh, spread her arms, shake her hair, pop her eyes wide, and the performer comes up swinging, sliding in and out of accent or gesture with practiced precision.

"I can't settle for what's written," she says, "because that's always obedient to the traditional structure of language. To make something come to life I need evidence, and language is living evidence. Once I repeat it, it comes to life in character. You're given these words, but to be you is always knocking up against the walls of language, taking your own rhythms, your own pauses and variations, to be who you are. We need language to be different, to fall apart, to find character. Ultimately, my project is to look at that difference, and it's fully dependent on differences among people; so to portray L.A. I have to have literally the words and literally the breaths of the people who live there.

"When I was there I was really depressed by the seeming comfort of the haves with their refusal to acknowledge the have‑nots. I thought, 'How can this be? These people actually seem to enjoy the fact that the city is balkanized.' You have to wonder if the strange geography of the place wasn't set up with that in mind. In L.A. there's no dialogue with the other. Yet many Angelenos believe that everything in the world is in L.A., that they have a multicultural city. I've been trying to learn what they mean by that. Maybe they have something to teach the rest of us, I don't know. I'm trying to create a dialogue between the individuals‑the real personality of a place‑and that perception."

Anna Devaere Smith in South Central L.A.

The Los Angeles piece, commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., is her most ambitious to date, based on more than a hundred interviews, though even that, she says, feels "not nearly enough" given the breadth of the subject. From these she's selected the 30 or so characters on whom the performance will be based. "There are some obvious players. I talked to Gates; the new police chief, Willie Williams; Mayor Tom Bradley; Anjelica Huston, who was out there; street kids; gang kids; Rodney King's aunt‑no success in getting him yet; Korean shopkeepers; cops; firemen; video‑store owners. If I talk to someone for an hour I usually know what I'll use. I'm really looking for speech acts, language events, more than information.

"I try to set up situations where people are comfortable with me. They'll always do something that is unusual, individual. Years ago I talked to a linguist who gave me three questions to ask that would be sure to bring a response: Have you ever come close to death? Have you ever been accused of something you didn't do? Do you remember the circumstances of your birth? In L.A. I found people were answering one or more of those questions when they talked about the riots. They came close to death. Many people there felt they'd been accused of something they didn't do. And a whole part of the riots was a complex answering of the question of birth and identity. A lot of people I spoke to were born elsewhere, and many of those born there felt they shouldn't have been, that being born there was the wrong birth."

Smith doesn't look for answers or "the truth." Her approach exults in contradiction. Some don't like it. The rap artist Sister Souljah refused to be interviewed, saying of Smith, "That's the sister who wants to take my words." The point is a good one, as Smith knows: She invites people to reveal their disarray and then, even more brazenly than is usual for an artist (and usually it's brazen enough), appropriates it.

She says, "It used to be a tradition that white actors did everybody. Now it's me doing that, and maybe some people have a problem with it. In the L.A. piece there are very strong accents, very strong personalities. Can I do that without being offensive? Could a white person get away with doing what I do? These are interesting questions. Bottom line is, I'm not interested in making people look funny or stupid, or embarrassing them in public. I feel I have to be responsible about what I do. Not in a holier‑than‑thou way. In a career way. I could get killed."

Anna Deavere Smith's piece about Los Angeles character, Los Angeles language, and the Los Angeles riots premieres next month at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Ex‑chief Gates will be among those appearing.