Anna Deavere Smith is many things: an actress, playwright, author, and founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University, where she is also University Professor at Tisch School of the Arts. In 2019, she became a member of the Academy and was a featured speaker at the Annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture held during the Induction weekend. After performing two original pieces that combine art, commentary, and journalism, she joined David M. Rubenstein in conversation. Their discussion — edited and presented below — explored a wide range of topics, from auditions and growing up in Baltimore to memorization and the school-to-prison pipeline.
2084th Stated Meeting | October 13, 2019 | Cambridge, MA
Annual David M. Rubenstein Lecture
I am very proud to be able to moderate a conversation with Anna Deavere Smith, not least because she has the advantage of coming from Baltimore, my hometown. Let me put it in context. When John Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and other scholar-patriots created the American Academy, you might have called them Renaissance men. Benjamin Franklin might be classified as another, and Thomas Jefferson as another.
Long a phrase reserved for White men, “Renaissance man” has gone out of favor a bit: with increased specialization comes fewer opportunities to do so many different things. But from time to time, Renaissance men still come along, just as, from time to time, Renaissance women come along. We are very fortunate to have one such Renaissance woman with us today. Anna Deavere Smith is an author who has published several books – on the creative process, and on language, politics, and verbal communication. She’s a playwright who has written some eighteen plays. She’s a celebrated theater actress who you will also recognize on television and in film. She’s a social activist. She’s a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts and the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University, where she also teaches at the NYU School of Law. She has served on the faculty of the University of Southern California, Stanford University, and Carnegie Mellon University. And she has invented a new form of performance, education, and entertainment called docudrama.
Let me tell you exactly what that is. When an event occurs that interests her, for example, the Crown Heights riot or the riot following the Rodney King beating, she will interview many, many people – hundreds of people – who have been involved. She listens to them, sometimes across several years, and she distills those interviews into a one-woman play, performing as eighteen or twenty of those characters and reciting their words verbatim.
This new form of theater performance is quite unique, and she is, as you might expect, the master of it. This morning, we’re going to hear a little bit from three of her docudramas. I think you will quickly understand what makes her work so exciting, and why we’re so privileged to have her both as a member of the Academy and as our guest this morning. It’s my pleasure to introduce Anna Deavere Smith.
The subject of this presentation is getting through things. My grandfather told me that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. And so I started going around America in the early 1980s with a tape recorder, recording people and trying to become America word for word.
You might think that insisting on becoming as much of America as I could had something to do with me trying to solve the problem of my own belongingness, growing up in a segregated city like Baltimore, Maryland. My plays are written using verbatim excerpts from those interviews. But I try to represent the people as precisely as possible in terms of not just what they’ve said, but how they’ve said it. I’m interested in catastrophe, in part because I’m a dramatist. But also I find that when people are caught in the midst of a storm of things that have gone wrong, when things have fallen apart or things are upside down, the way that they express themselves is incredibly interesting. As they try to make sense out of what is now nonsense, and sometimes even restore dignity to themselves through our conversation, they reveal much. Many of the sites of my explorations have been race riots. I’m interested in race.
I’m a race woman, as the colored people used to say a long time ago. Education, health care, relationship of the press to the president, incarceration: these are all race issues. I call what I do now portraits. They’re not impersonations. I’m not really striving to impersonate anyone. You might think something is humorous, but I’m not a comic. It’s all to try to make this verbal portrait for you. My latest play is about what is variously called the poverty-to-prison pipeline, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, the womb-to-prison pipeline, and most often the school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve all become, by now, aware of mass incarceration as a grave problem in this country, and I decided to look at that through the lens of what’s happening to children. The result was that I did over 250 interviews in four geographic areas.
The play is called Notes from the Field. It’s now a film on HBO. For it, I went to Northern California to Stockton, which, at the time before Mayor Michael Tubbs, was a bankrupt and homicide-ridden city. I went further north to the Yurok Tribe reservation, then on to Philadelphia, to South Carolina, traveling up and down what’s called the corridor of shame because the schools are so bad. And then to my and David’s town, Baltimore. And it just so happened that we arrived in Baltimore immediately after the riots in 2015. These followed the police beating and death of a young man named Freddie Gray. The beating was captured on video. He died, it is felt, in custody because of, it is felt, the way that he was treated.
I also interviewed and performed Sherrilyn Ifill for Notes from the Field, but obviously I’m not going to perform her today because she did such a great job of performing herself at yesterday’s events. I don’t want to follow that act. But she’s a very important character in the show.
This first profile is Kevin Moore, who took the video of Freddie Gray being beaten by Baltimore police officers. This is called “Just a Glance,” and again, it’s taken word for word from his interview.
The screams [are] what woke me out my sleep. The screamin’. I’m like, well, “What’s all this screaming?” And then they came to pull me up, like, “Dude, they tasin’ him, they tasin’ him!” I’m like, “Wooh!” (High-pitched.) So I jumped up and threw some clothes on and went out to see what was going on, you know. And then I came out that way, and I’m like, “Holy shit!” You know what I’m saying?
They had him all bent up and he was handcuffed and, like, facedown on his stomach. But they had the – the heels of his feet like almost in his back? And he was handcuffed at the time. And they had the knee in the neck, and that pretty much explains the three cracked vertebrae and crushed lernix [pronounciation of larynx], 80 percent of his spinal cord being severed and stuff. And then when they picked him up, I had to zoom in to get a closer look on his face. You could see the pain in his face, you know what I’m saying? But then they pulled around on Mount Street and pulled him out again! To put leg shackles on him. You put leg shackles on a man that could barely walk to the paddy wagon? That doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ve never known a-a-a on-the-beat officer to carry leg shackles in – on their person or in the van, that’s something that you do when you’re going to another compound or when you’re being transported to the court or something like that. They don’t put leg shackles on you outside, they just don’t do it! You know, so you put leg shackles on a man that can’t walk. You know. Then you toss him in the back of the paddy wagon like a dead animal. You know what I’m saying? Then you don’t even put a seat belt on him. So basically, he’s handcuffed, shackled, sliding back and forth in a steel cage, basically. ’Cause that’s what – it’s not padded back there. I don’t know why everybody seems to say, “Oh, oh, uh, it’s a pad – it’s padded.” No, it’s not padded. It’s about – it’s – it’s about as padded as that v – the outside of that van.
It’s ridiculous how bad they hurt that man. I mean, come on, a crushed lernix? Can you do that to yourself? Three cracked vertebrae? Can you do that to yourself? Can you sever 80 percent of your own spinal cord? You know what I’m saying? In the back of a paddy wagon, shackled and handcuffed, no less? I wish you could just see how they had him. So I’m like, “Man, this shit is just crazy, man. They just don’t care anymore!” Man, I just feel like we need to record it, you know’m saying? We need to get this word out that this thing is – is happening. This is the only weapon that we have that’s actually . . . the camera’s the only thing that we have that can actually protect us, that’s not illegal, you know what I’m saying? But in – in the same sense, these guys could feel threatened or, “Oh, well, I mistook this camera for a gun.” You know what I’m saying? So that’s what I’m sayin’! [Like I said,] I haven’t really filmed anything before, or been known for filmin’, you know what I’m saying?
But that time I was like, man, “Somebody has to see this.” You know what I mean? “I have to film this.” When I touched back down around, I just basically called every news station that I could and just got the video out there! You know, mainstream, thirteen, forty-five, uh, eleven, New York Times, Russia Today. (Laughs.) I don’t even speak Russian but, you know, I did the interview.
(Answering a question.) No, it was actually [I took it with] my phone! (Laughs.) And . . . I had some brothers from Ferguson, and they came out and supported me. Yeah, and they actually spent the night at my house! My brothers from Ferguson, they took me to Best Buy. And brought me four cameras. Basically arming me! It’s a movement. It’s not gonna stop here.
(Answering a question.) Eye contact. This story [of Freddie Gray’s eye contact] was with the – the whole story since it be – since it happened. That’s how the officers, I guess, wrote the paperwork: That [Freddie] made eye contact. And he looked suspicious. Oh. “And that gave us probable cause to” . . . do whatever. We know the truth, y’know what I’m saying? Just a glance. The eye contact thing, that – it – it – it – it – sets off, it’s like a trigger. That’s all it takes here in Baltimore, is just a glance.
(He sits down somewhere – a step, the curb, a box. He starts to cry.)
Have you ever been to a place where (six-second pause) you don’t feel tired – you tired of being tired. You know’m saying? Where you fed up. And it’s nothing else left. And you can’t get any lower? (He listens to an answer.) Past that. You know? So . . . That’s where I’ve been. (He listens to a question.)
Gotta keep climbing. You gotta keep fightin’. You gotta keep climbing. You gotta keep praying. You gotta keep doing all’v the things that you know can make you stronger because in the end (a deep inward breath), you just gonna need all the strength that you can muster to git yourself from that hole, it’s like a bunch of crabs trying to pull you back. You know what I’m saying? It’s like quicksand. And you fighting and you fighting you just sinking faster and faster. You know.
And I hate it that Baltimore is going through such harsh times right now. The fact that my children might have to fight this fight, you know? I’m not gonna be here forever. You know’m saying? Then how do I train my children to deal with this, you know what I’m saying?
(He stands up, listens to a question from the interviewer/audience.)
The leaders? Right now, man, the leaders are looking pretty assholeish. Uh. Look. It’s – it’s just so much the leaders can do. You know what I’m sayin’? It’s only so mu – so much they can say. But at the end of the day the leaders gonna make up their minds. They’re gonna do what they wanna do, you know what’m saying, so . . . we have to make it better, not wait around for them to make it better. These people are tired and – and – and they want answers. And it seems like the only way they can get answers, to them, is if they cost the city money!
Those are the words of Kevin Moore.
There is a song that most of you know. It’s thought to be a Welsh tune written by an English slave captain of a ship who had a religious experience and thought about his evil ways of putting people into bondage, and he became a Christian evangelist. The song is “Amazing Grace” and almost everybody knows “Amazing Grace.” Let’s sing the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” [An audience member is invited and comes to the front to lead the audience in song.]
Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see.
Anna Deavere Smith
The next person I’m going to represent made a very famous, quite beautiful recording of this song, and some of you may have had an opportunity to hear her sing it in person. She is the late Jessye Norman, who died on September 30, 2019, just fourteen days after her seventy-fourth birthday. I went to Augusta, Georgia, just this past Thursday to pay my respects to the family at Mount Cavalry Baptist Church, the church where she grew up and her father Silas Norman was a deacon. This afternoon a street is going to be named after her outside of the Jessye Norman School of the Arts.
I spoke with Jessye Norman many times about singing, and one of the reasons I wanted to include her today is that she often talked about singing through events. I saw her in Reims, France, in 1999, standing on the steps of the cathedral singing through the solar eclipse of the sun, from darkness into light. When I interviewed over three hundred people to write Twilight Los Angeles, about the Los Angeles riots in 1992, many youths told me that what had occurred was not a riot, rather it was an “uprising.” I asked what song they sang in the uprising, and they kind of shrugged and cited the famous N.W.A song “[expletive] the Police,” which they played in car radios but did not actually sing. And so I went to visit Jessye Norman and asked her why she supposed that in the uprising, if it was an uprising, there was no song, no anthem?
What I’m going to do here is a mash up of two interviews: one that reflects on the song “Amazing Grace,” which I conducted for a workshop version of my play Let Me Down Easy, and another that came from an interview in which Jessye Norman shared her views about why there was no singing in the streets of Los Angeles during the 1992 riot. I just call this “Protest Songs.”
“Amazing Grace.” I sing this song all over the world. Everybody in the world knows “Amazing Grace.” Of course, there’s a great deal of question as to where the melody, sort of is derived. And my feeling is that John Newton, having made more than one trip across the Atlantic and the Horn of Africa – taking people from their homeland to a new land to be enslaved – I would have thought, and it certainly has been proven, that the tune of “Amazing Grace” is much closer to old tunes still found particularly in West Africa. And that the – the – that John Newton was from what was at that time the United Kingdom.
So the fact that the song has been sort of given credit to the Welsh and to the Scottish, by the way, that this, in my mind, simply does not, as it were, hold water. Because certainly, people in the bowels of a ship had to somehow – and I say this all the time – Anna, that as a people we have sung our way through things, not sung our way out of them. That is something different. But these songs that have been created in – throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth century by the enslaved, that this was a matter of simply getting through the day, not getting out of it, getting through it. And so “Amazing Grace” could have been an African tune. Oh, absolutely! Oh, absolutely! The rhythm of it, the length of it, the meter of it is much closer to an African song than to anything that is Welsh or Scottish.
We as African Americans have a great tradition of singing our way through troubles. And yes, why was there no singing in the streets of Los Angeles? That we know of. Well, it’s all confusion. And the more we talk about this the more facets of this confusion I can understand and see. I was coming back after having given a performance in Seattle. And so I was in Los Angeles on the day of the riot, and some friends of mine, who were very involved in things having to do with civil rights said, you know, you really ought to stay. And I said I can’t. I have to – I’m in the middle of a tour. I can’t. And who knows if the verdict’s going to come down today anyway? And so I was sitting on the plane thinking, “Well gosh. I didn’t have time to stay in Los Angeles, but what would I have done anyway besides go to somebody’s church and sing a few songs?” What could I have done except to talk or to sing to anybody who would listen to me, and I don’t think that people were in the mood to sing at that time, somehow. Of course, of course, of course, exactly! In the civil rights movement, you’d sing first, and then you would organize whatever protest, you know, was happening that week or day or whatever.
And then you would sing at the end of it as well. You’d sing all through it. This is how the spiritual came into being. That in order to deal with this unbelievable situation, of having been transported from one’s homeland to a new land and being made a slave – we had to sing ourselves through that. But I think that if I were . . . a person, you know, sort of a teenager, a youngster, twenty or something. . . . And I felt that I were being heard for the first time. . . . It would not be singing as we know it. It would be a roar. Oh, I think it would be a roar. Oh, it would come . . . Oh, it would come from the bottom of my feet. It would be, I really think that it would be . . . like a lion just roaring! It wouldn’t be singing as we know it. It wouldn’t be words. It would be, it would just be, like the earth’s first utterance. I really do feel so.
David M. Rubenstein
Let’s talk for a moment about our hometown of Baltimore. When you and I were growing up in Baltimore, roughly around the same time, it was among the most rigidly segregated cities in the United States, in the North certainly, by religion and race and ethnicity. So the area you grew up in was essentially an all-Black neighborhood?
Anna Deavere Smith
DR: I lived in an area that was essentially all Jewish. I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Jewish until I was thirteen. I thought everybody in the world was Jewish, and then I realized that not many people are Jewish. But you had the advantage of a family that was pretty well educated by standards in those days. Your father was a businessman. Your mother was a teacher. And your grandparents were involved in your upbringing. So did they help you get the self-confidence to be a performer? Were you a good student?
ADS: I was an okay student. I was part of this experiment where they gave my school, which was in a segregated area, some of the things that kids in White schools had, like French lessons. I had two brothers and then two little sisters, and some very naughty cousins. But I had to be the sensible one. I think people translated that to me being smart. So I was part of a group that skipped the fifth grade. But it was more that I was afraid of getting in trouble.
DR: Baltimore had a tradition then of central high schools, usually single-sex high schools, that drew students from the whole city. I went to an all-male high school called City College. You went to Western High School. What was Western High School like? It was White and Black?
ADS: It was an incredible experience for me. These are public, single-sex schools: Western, Eastern, City, and Poly. I actually went to an integrated junior high, Garrison. I was part of an experiment there, and that was terrible. So that meant traveling up there through the Forest Park area. Garrison Junior High was an awful place. Kids in tribes. Even people who did very well, who I’ve seen later in my life, maintained that it was awful. I had a tough time. But Western is where I learned that not all White people were the same. That’s where I saw anti-Semitism at work. I realized these are all White people, but they don’t like each other.
DR: You discovered there that you were pretty good at languages, and you originally wanted to major in languages or linguistics. What changed?
ADS: It seemed a lot like mathematics, so I fled from it. And I just buckled down in French and French literature, but when I left, I followed another path. I kind of tripped over an acting class and found out then that it was something I could do.
DR: Is acting what you were most interested in? And what did you do right after college?
ADS: I got my theater education at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Then, I was going to leave to go to New York and the person who ran the theater said, “I hear you’re going to go to New York.” “Yeah,” I replied. He said, “Well, you know, you should stick around because we’d like to have a master’s program here, and we don’t have any students.” So I was one of the first students who walked out of there with an MFA. Then I joined the Guild.
DR: And did your parents say, “You know, acting is not the most stable profession”?
ADS: To this day my Aunt Lorraine – who’s the only living woman in my parent’s generation – would be very concerned if I left the perceived safety of teaching at NYU.
DR: Well, my mother always told me I should keep my law license because you never know if my business career would fall apart. So I’m still a member of the D.C. bar. But when you started trying out for parts, how did agents or companies respond to you as an African-American woman? Were they open to casting you or would they say something like, “we’re not sure you’re the right fit for this,” “come back later,” or “we’ll call you another day”?
ADS: Well, it was a little bit more rude than that, I would say. [laughter] You know, it’s very different now, but maybe it will forever be that there are popular shades and unpopular shades. And my shade was not popular at that time. The first agent that I ever went to see for a meeting – I don’t think she’s still alive, and not because of anything I did to her. I was very scared going into it, and I still am scared of agents and auditions. She took a look at me and said, “Well, I really couldn’t” – she was British – “I really couldn’t possibly send you out because it would antagonize my clients.” “What do you mean antagonize?” I asked. And she said, “Well, what would you go as? Would you go as Black or White? You don’t look like anything.”
DR: So what did you say?
DR: So when did you get your first break?
ADS: You know – and this is for anybody who has a child who’s an artist. I think what’s most important is that you do what you want to do in the arts. I had been very interested in language, probably as an outgrowth of being a language major. And then the lights switched on for me with Shakespeare. We were trained with the idea that if you just say the words, the inner life will come. I was so charged up about that that I spent every down minute I had, which weren’t many – when I was in conservatory, learning everything I could and finding out why I had problems with the so-called “Method.” Our watered down version touted that you can be anyone in the world, that all kinds of humans live inside of you the individual actor. Everything in the world is me. I had a spiritual problem with that. And so by the end of the 1970s, I knew I wanted to understand acting in a different way than that. And ultimately, now, I’m interested in revealing difference – I appreciate gaps. Now, many years later, I talk to my students about reaching towards another human being and understanding that you might not make it. I call it the “broad jump towards the other.”
Moreover, I wasn’t comfortable – and still am not – with auditioning. I remember we used to get a restaurant job to make enough money to get these little postcards made. We’d have to get new photographs made for them. We’d give them to an agent, and they would say, “This doesn’t look like you.” So then we’d go get another restaurant job. We’d make some money, get new photos, get more postcards made, and repeat that same cycle. I remember the day when I took all those postcards and threw them in the trash and said to myself “I’m not going to spend my time doing this anymore.” Instead I buckled down and worked harder to teach myself what I could about the relationship of speech to identity.
I came here to Cambridge to the Bunting Institute at Harvard. It was the first year of my adult life that I didn’t have to go to work every day, and it’s then I wrote Fires in the Mirror. And although it was the thirteenth play that I’d written, it changed my life. I received significant attention because of that play, and out of that attention I was offered opportunities to do television and some movies.
DR: How did you support yourself when you were struggling?
ADS: I was a teacher. My poor students to this day have to hear me trying to remember the many years I’ve been teaching. I started teaching in 1974. Then, I got a tenure track position at Carnegie Mellon University, excellent school. But I took a break from academia immediately and I spent the next five years just developing my work, taking temp jobs and stuff like that to support myself. And then I went back onto the tenure track at USC and then Stanford and now at NYU. So I’ve always had this underlying teaching thing going on.
DR: You supported yourself by teaching, and eventually parts came along. You found work in television, including on The West Wing. What was that like?
ADS: I felt very privileged to be on The West Wing. One thing about The West Wing, and the same is true working with Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes’s production company, is that on the first day, they tell you some version of, “We say what’s written.” And on The West Wing, there was a woman whose sole job was to come up to you and correct you if, for example, you said “it’s” instead of “it is.” And then they did another take. Because my character came in and out of the story, and I wasn’t, like, on the regular team of Martin Sheen, for God’s sake, and Bradley Whitford, I had to relearn this whenever I came back on set. So I was always terrified that they were going to call CUT because I’d made a mistake with a single word in a line. And even my mother said, “You know, I just don’t understand what anybody’s saying on that show, they speak so fast.” And she wasn’t alone. Once this Japanese man, whose accent I’m going to butcher, came over to me in a hair salon: “You that woman. You that woman. You on that show. Everybody speaks so fast. I don’t know what they saying. I just know that every time you come on, everybody’s scared!”
It was very demanding. It was kind of like you’re thrown onto the floor of Madison Square Garden. And filming a twelve-hour day, you have to be ready for whenever it’s your turn in front of the camera for fifteen minutes.
DR: So is film acting harder or easier than television acting?
ADS: The thing that’s great about movie acting is that you have the script in advance that stays relatively the same throughout the shoot – relatively. With television, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I remember being on Nurse Jackie, which was a fantastically written television show. Every Friday on Nurse Jackie we would have a read-through where everyone came into a room with the script. And you open the script, because they almost never gave us scripts in advance, and that’s when you find out what you’re going to be doing next week. I was in a cab one time when I got this phone call from the producer’s assistant saying, “Oh, Anna, Linda wanted me to tell you that, uh, God, tomorrow in the read-through Gloria Akalitus,” who was my character, “is going to be fired. So don’t worry about it.” She said, “Don’t worry about it.” I asked, “What do you mean? What do you mean she’s going to be fired?” “I – I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything. She’s going to be fired.” And so she got fired, and my character was gone, though she did come back. But it’s like you could die in the story and it’s a surprise. With a movie, at least you know what you’re getting into.
DR: Obviously, you’re a good writer and very verbally skilled. Did you ever say to writers on these shows or movies, you know, I have an idea that might be better?
ADS: You can’t do that, no. [laughter] It’s very hierarchical, making movies in Hollywood, and you’ve got to know your part in it. I feel so sorry for my students who’ll say, “I don’t want to say that.” In school, that can be OK, people will respond, “That’s cool, you don’t have to say it.” And I’m like, well you’re not going to work. You’ll be fired. You have to say what they want you to say. You don’t say, “I’ll never say that.”
DR: What’s it like working with Shonda Rhimes? Is she a different type of producer?
ADS: Well, Shonda is a real phenomenon. She might be one of the best-known African-American women of letters. I mean, what if Toni Morrison were born when Shonda was, would she have written television rather than novels? I don’t know. Shonda has an enormous amount of power. “Shondaland,” her company, is really well run. And it’s run in a way that is very respectful of actors. That’s a great thing.
DR: Did your parents live to see your considerable success?
ADS: They did.
DR: And did they say to you, “We raised you this way. We knew you were going to be successful”?
ADS: My mother did. My mother went all over the country to see the tiniest play I was in, and she was very kind. My father didn’t really get it about my work. He just really wasn’t into it, and actually he never said congratulations to me about anything in my entire life.
ADS: Until I got tenure at Stanford. [laughter] And how old was I? Maybe forty?
DR: When you taught at Stanford, and when you teach at NYU now, what did/do you teach? Writing? Did/do you teach acting?
ADS: It’s evolved. Originally, I taught actors, but you can’t really teach actors unless you can be with them every day, because learning to act requires transformation, psychologically, linguistically, physically, emotionally. So you really have to be there with your students the way a coach is with athletes. My professional life has several parts, which makes it difficult to commit to that kind of time. Now what I teach is best described as narrative: what is your story? I think that we all have about three fundamental stories inside of us about our lives, about how we see the world and why. Those stories make up our personal mythology. The exercises around which I build a class have been influenced by a great woman of the theater, the late Zelda Fichandler. I work with students for the purpose of taking a very close look at those personal mythologies under a microscope, and then we refine them. They sometimes realize that they are not actually the star of their own show. I ask them to round out and flesh out others in the story. My students are in their twenties, for the most part graduate students, and some of them want to look at some rather horrible things that happened to them in their families. They come to the realization that the villain in the story is more complex than at first sight. I help them enrich these stories with the hope that the story will be resonant and useful. It could be useful in leadership, in a relationship, even when applying for a job. What’s the most important thing to say about yourself that will help you engage substantively with others.
DR: Do you think actors have to struggle to be successful? Is that a necessary part of an actor’s mythology?
ADS: I don’t really think it has to do with that kind of struggle. But I do think that’s one of the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful things about art. Yes, there are people who get a leg up: they know somebody, or their father is a producer or whatever. But to me, one of the most glorious things about art is the mystery of where talent comes from. If you think about what happened in this country between Tin Pan Alley and jazz, it was people who came from utter poverty. Louis Armstrong was in an orphanage. Ella Fitzgerald had been in a reform school. Yet they created this amazing music. They didn’t have music lessons. They didn’t go to Julliard. How could they just – without supposed training – play the piano and play the bass or play the saxophone? Of course, they learned on the job – which is what it is all about. Art can be one of the great places to find true democracy and true equality in that some people just come out with a God-given gift, but that’s not always enough. Some people have talent, but they’re not resilient. Resilience may be something that you’re born with. We don’t know yet.
DR: When you started your docudramas, how did that come about? Did you set out to invent a new genre, or did it evolve?
ADS: I wanted to learn as much about America as I possibly could. The first show I made had other actors in it. I wanted to talk to people and have the syntax of their language break down. I observed that when people seem to make a mess of what they’re saying is when they’re saying the most. And a linguist gave me three questions that I could ask to ensure that would happen. Those were: Have you ever come close to death? Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do? And do you know the circumstances of your birth? The first show I made featured twenty actors, and I found twenty real people. And I literally approached strangers and said “I know an actor who looks like you. If you give me an hour of your time, I’ll invite you to see yourself performed.” And we talked about swimming lanes at the Y; I talked to Meredith Monk about her music; I talked to a hairdresser about narcissism. And then somewhere in it I would say, gee, you know, I’m asking everybody, “have you ever come close to death?” and so on. And the architecture of their language would completely change.
The first docudrama was an extension of that experiment. I thought it was successful, and I loved seeing the real people march in with their friends and family. I played only one character. Afterward I wanted to have an acting company that does this. This is 1981, and I thought, “Well, I don’t know a thing about raising money. That’s not going to happen.” I then remembered that as a child, I was a mimic, and so I thought well, I’ll just do all the parts I can until I figure out how to raise money.
DR: Let’s talk about Crown Heights. For those who may not remember that, can you briefly recite what happened that led to the crisis and the controversy?
ADS: This was 1991, and Crown Heights was then a neighborhood that was largely Lubavitch, which is a group of Orthodox Hasidic Jews. There’s always been tension there between the Black community and the Jewish community. Now that Crown Heights has been gentrified. It’s probably very different. But in 1991, the Grand Rebbe – which is just what it sounds like, the big rabbi – was going through the streets of Crown Heights with an entourage of cars, and one car in his entourage ran a red light, drove up a sidewalk, and hit and killed a little boy named Gavin Cato, a Guyanese-American boy. Later that night, a group of people stopped an Australian student, a scholar, a young man named Yankel Rosenbaum, and stabbed him. These deaths were followed by a riot. I went over there, and I started talking to people.
One of the things that got me interested is that the Lubavitch could not meet me in a restaurant. So I went to their homes. And sitting there in the homes of the Lubavitch interviewing them reminded me of visiting my Jewish friends at Western High School in Baltimore who had unassimilated grandparents, their “bobes.” I thought, wow, this feels just like sitting in those kitchens. I felt completely at home in a place that would on the surface, appear to be strange. The last thing I’ll say about it, and this is why Fires in the Mirror worked better than my other plays previous to it, is that nobody told the same story. Some Blacks said that it was a rebellion of sort. Some of the Jewish residents said it was a pogrom. And so I was able to write a play where it went back and forth, back and forth, with everybody expressing a different reality.
DR: And how many did you interview and record for this?
ADS: For Crown Heights, just fifty. And then I made the transcriptions.
DR: Next you decided that you would do a one-person play where you would play all of the parts. How do you make decisions about which interviews to use? And why do you perform them verbatim? Why don’t you say, well, this is the essence of what they said, or this is what they were trying to say, and rewrite it in your own language?
ADS: Because then that would be my identity, and what I’m interested in is their identity. And I really believe that their identity is captured in the way they express themselves.
DR: How hard is it to memorize exactly what somebody else said?
ADS: It’s very difficult. The rehearsal period in most American theaters is about three weeks. So you have a brief amount of time before you have an audience.
DR: When you performed it for the first time, what was the reaction?
ADS: Fires in the Mirror, it was successful. It ran in New York for maybe three or four months. And then it went around the country and to London. So it had a long run.
By the way, the Signature Theater is doing Fires in the Mirror this fall. We cast a man in it, so it’s not a one-woman show, and Twilight Los Angeles will run in the spring. It will be the first time in New York that the work is done by someone other than me.
DR: You’ve won Obie Awards and have been nominated for Pulitzers and Tony Awards. President Obama awarded you the National Humanities Medal. Did you have a chance to talk to President Obama or Michelle then? Had they seen your plays?
ADS: I went to a small dinner at the White House, but before that I had the chance to talk to President Obama twice before he was president, including when he was a senator. The great journalist Studs Terkel, who had been a great influence on my work, was scheduled to introduce me at an event I was doing in Chicago about health care. Studs couldn’t make it, so Obama filled in. And this was before he was Obama as we know him. We had a very long talk on the phone the next morning, I remember I was in an airport, about health care, and how important it was as an issue. And then I interviewed him for a piece in The New York Times after his great speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004.
DR: After Crown Heights, you went to Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. You interviewed how many people?
ADS: Three hundred and twenty.
DR: And when you interviewed them, was it hard to get people to talk?
ADS: That’s a very good question. What I’ve come to realize is that what I’m looking for is people who would scream it from the mountain top. One of the best characters in Fires in the Mirror is a woman named Ros Malamud, who’s a very wealthy Lubavitch. And in the middle of the interview she said, “I just wish I could go on television and scream to the whole world!” That’s who I want. I want the people who want you to hear what they have to say. And that’s why I like catastrophe.
With something like the Los Angeles riots, everybody wanted to get the record straight. And one thing that was interesting about visiting Los Angeles in particular, one thing that was very important for me to understand at the time, was that the story of race in this country, which is usually centered around African Americans, is so much bigger than Black and White. And growing up in Baltimore, that was a limitation of how I thought. In Los Angeles, there’s a huge Korean community that I interacted with, a huge Latino community. California is just an explosion of diversity, which I couldn’t ignore.
DR: More recently, in 2016, you debuted Notes from the Field, which was released as an HBO special as well.
ADS: Right. And PBS has put my other shows on the air.
DR: How many people did you interview for Notes?
ADS: I interviewed more than two hundred and fifty, in Baltimore, Philly, South Carolina, Stockton, and an Indian reservation. I included twenty-three characters in Notes.
DR: Is the challenge of memorizing these different voices verbatim an obstacle for other people to be able to do this?
ADS: I want other people to do it. That’s the teacher in me. I created this because I want people to do these plays, and I would prefer, which is hard in the sort of mood of our country right now, that people play parts that they are not.
DR: How would you reduce the main message of Notes from the Field?
ADS: Our education system is broken. Education could be a good and strong intervention against racism and inequality, but our schools are in trouble, so they can’t be that intervention. So we go to the courts hoping that they can do something about it. And the state doesn’t have the resources needed to help kids. So you have kids who have been in the system, some of them, if they were foster children or if parents couldn’t take care of them, have been in the system since they were little tiny people, and here they are twenty years old and no one and no thing has intervened to help put their lives back on track.
DR: And when you were doing the interviews, among other places, you went to prisons to interview people? What was that like?
ADS: Some of the best hospitality we experienced was in a prison or jail in South Carolina, where they cooked us this huge lunch. They fed our whole crew. In prisons I met people who were so dedicated to taking care of other people. I called these people walkers, because they were willing to walk with the people who we say we care about, but who we don’t want to be near. The walkers are right there, close to them. That’s not to say that, across the board, our prisons are caring places at all – but these people exist, and we don’t hear a lot about them. And others like public defenders, who care so much about the kids they represent. They make very little money. And I met the chief judge of the Yurok Tribe, an extraordinary woman, the first Native American woman to pass the California bar exam, who also sat on the bench in San Francisco. She’s saving lives every day. And it’s in these many, many dark environments. Mayor Michael Tubbs, of Stockton, was a councilman at the time, the youngest in the state I think. He’s doing that work as well.
DR: And how important is being there in person? Other people might delegate the interviews to someone else on the team. They could bring it back to you, and you spare yourself some time and miles. But you don’t do that.
ADS: No, because it’s kind of like I’m making portraits. I’ve been doing it for a very long time, trying to get better at it, and so when somebody’s sitting with me, first of all there’s a visceral experience. Before I started videoing interviews, audience members would ask, “Well, how do you know what they did, their gestures?” Some of it, my body would remember. The person-to-person contact that I’m having with the people I interview is very important.
DR: Have you thought of taking the interviews and putting them in book form, compiling all the characters, not just those brought to life on stage?
ADS: I should do that. I do publish the plays, but that’s a very good idea.
DR: Other than that book, what are you going to do next? How do you top what you’ve already done? What do you want to do with the next twenty-five years?
ADS: I’m creating a second chapter of Notes from the Field, which is focused on girls and young women. When we think about vulnerable children, particularly children vulnerable to the juvenile justice system, we think about boys of color. And I was interested in the girls that I met who were in trouble. I want the second chapter to look at how poverty affects girls specifically. I met the dean of the school of public health of a university. He came up to me after a conference and said, “You have to come and see the people in East Tennessee.” And he was right. I will broaden the lens to include poor White girls.
DR: What gives you the greatest pleasure: writing the plays, doing the research, performing the plays, being interviewed?
ADS: I like talking to people. I have to write these plays in a very short amount of time. I arrive at the first rehearsal with, like, four hundred hours of material. It’s an enormous amount of work, and if it comes together, it’s very gratifying. But sometimes when I’m sitting there talking to the people, and I love how they talk so much, I think to myself, gee, wouldn’t it be great if this is all I had to do?
You’re compensated very well in television. You’re compensated very poorly in the nonprofit theater in relation to how much work goes into it. The way we pay our actors in the nonprofit theater is not good. So I can subsidize that if I get a television show. And now I am trying to write in different genres, I want to explore different forms of writing. I’m writing something for Shonda Rhimes.
DR: Do you see yourself as a role model for younger artists? And who were your role models?
ADS: I had great role models. I had my grandfather, Deavere Smith Sr, who was tough. He started a business by selling tea in a basket on street corners. He managed to put all six of his kids through college in the 40s and 50s. I learned about kindness and generosity from my maternal grandmother, who would go around with Kleenex on Baltimore’s buses, and I would go with her wherever she was going and carrying a Kleenex just in case a nose was running. So you know I’ve had many role models, many lessons. My mother has really informed my dedication to education. She believed everybody should read, and nobody left her sixth-grade class without reading. Studs Terkel had a huge influence on me. Many of you assembled know Ruth Simmons, former President of Brown University – a stellar academic in every way. My mentee, Samora Pinderhughes, is a jazz musician. He’s a great inspiration to me.
Finally, I feel very excited about being a member of the Academy. It wasn’t just a letter that brought me into a club. I’m inspired by this gathering and by learning about all the ways that we can participate. I’m excited to make friends and connections. With the Academy so far I’ve experienced what I call radical hospitality. And I’m very excited about being here.
© 2020 by David M. Rubenstein and Anna Deavere Smith. “Kevin Moore” reprinted from Anna Deavere Smith, Notes from the Field (New York: Anchor Books, 2019) with permission from the author. All rights reserved.