Written by Alisa Solomon.
When Anna Deavere Smith was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2012 by President Obama, the citation lauded how “she has informed our understanding of social issues” by conveying “a range of disparate characters.” Through her sustained project “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” which she began in the early 1980s, Smith has indeed invented a unique and powerful form of documentary theater that shines light on pressing contemporary issues. Inspired by Smith’s groundbreaking artistry, Stanford Live’s series Live Context: Art + Ideas and the Office for Religious Life are presenting works that explore the role art can play in promoting social change.
Smith builds her plays by interviewing a diverse group of people who all have some stake in a particular event or issue, and then she culls rich monologues from what she calls the “organic poetry” in their expression. She performs these verbatim texts with complete fidelity to the rhythms and patterns of each person’s speech and gestures. As a result, through the medium of her body, onstage Smith brings into dialogue people who would otherwise never occupy the same space. A Lubavitcher housewife, a Nation of Islam minister, an Orthodox rabbi, and a young rapper, for instance, are just four of some 26 characters Smith personified in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, the 1992 work that dug into the heart of the violent clashes between that neighborhood’s Hasidic and Caribbean American communities and that catapulted Smith to international acclaim. With this same technique, Smith’sTwilight: Los Angeles, 1992 illuminated the causes and effects of the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating case. (The searing PBS version will be screened at Cubberley Auditorium on October 14, followed by a Q&A with Smith.) House Arrest examined the American presidency and its public image. Let Me Down Easyexplored illness and mortality within the context of a broken health-care system.
Smith also performs (or directs other actors in) works made from archival texts she has selected that still speak to the current moment—to America’s persistent inequities and to its enduring promise—and that respond to the same concerns that animate her interview-based plays: racial and economic justice, American identity on individual and national scales, triumphs and failures of empathy, the struggles folks face and the ways they rise to meet them. (These are also the themes she will take up in a dialogue on compassion at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education on October 7.) Rap on Race juxtaposed Mike Wallace’s 1959 interview of Lorraine Hansberry with James Baldwin’s legendary 1971 conversation with Margaret Mead. Smith’s recitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—which she will present at Memorial Church on October 21—reanimates his defense of taking to the streets for the cause of justice as a rousing summons for right now.
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