Anna Deavere Smith has been hailed as the most exciting individual in American theater. She has won numerous awards, including two Obies, several Tony nominations and a MacArthur genius grant. She is best known for two plays examining race relations: Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Her latest solo show is called Let Me Down Easy. [includes rush transcript]
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AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has been hailed as the most exciting individual in American theater. She has won numerous awards, including two Obies, several Tony nominations, a MacArthur genius grant. I’m talking about the acclaimed actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
Almost thirty years ago, she began traveling across the United States interviewing people from all walks of life. Her encounters became an ongoing series of one-woman performances called On the Road: A Search for American Character.
Anna Deavere Smith is best known for two plays examining race relations. Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities is based on Smith’s interviews with over fifty participants, observers, politicians, activists about the 1991 race riots in Brooklyn, New York. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 draws from the 175 interviews she conducted in the wake of the Los Angeles riots following the verdict in the first Rodney King trial.
Anna Deavere Smith is currently a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts and is founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. She is also well known for her roles in television shows like The West Wing, Life Support. Her latest solo show is called Let Me Down Easy, and her most recent book is Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts.
Anna Deavere Smith joins me here in Aspen, where she is speaking at the Festival of Ideas. Welcome to Democracy Now!
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Nice to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your advice to young artists?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, interesting that the Letters to a Young Artist are a series of letters written to a fictitious artist in Colorado, so I’m happy that we’re talking here in Colorado about the book.
The main advice is, as one chapter says, the man has the power, but so do you. And I think everything about being an artist is one’s relationship to authority, whether that’s government, if you decide to be a political artist and dedicate your life to speaking truth to power, or if it’s you want a job and you’re looking to the head of a studio or a casting director to give you a job. It’s very important to understand that the man, meaning the one with the power, has the power, but so do you. And that, I think, is the theme that goes all the way through Letters to a Young Artist.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you see art and resistance?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: There’s not enough art and resistance, I think, in our culture right now. Or, you know, I heard you last night speaking so strongly and eloquently about how in this election it really is about the people. In fact, you wouldn’t even name names of possible vice-presidential candidates. I don’t even know if you ever uttered the names of the actual presidential candidates. And you really kept after the moderator and us in the audience to understand that the people have to come forward with their concerns and put the pressure on leadership.
And I think that artists have an incredible opportunity to do that, and in other social movements in our country we have seen their impact. There would have been — the civil rights movement wouldn’t have been the same, for example, without the number of artists and the variety of artists who participated, as — and the same is true of the antiwar movement. I’m not sure I see artists galvanizing in that same way right now.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to an excerpt of that first play, On the Road: A Search for American Character. This is legendary radio broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: [playing Studs Terkel] But, you see, the human touch, you see, it’s disappearing. You know, you see, you’ve got to question the official truth. You know, the thing that was so great about Mark Twain — you know, we honor Mark Twain, but we don’t read him. We read Huck Finn
, of course. We read Huck Finn, of course. I mean, Huck, of course, was tremendous. Remember that great scene on the raft? Remember what Huck did? You see, here’s Huck. He’s an illiterate kid, he’s had no schooling. But there’s something in him. And the official truth — the truth was, the law was, that a black man was a property, was a thing, you see. And Huck is on the raft with a property named Jim, a slave, see. And he hears — he hears that he’s going to go and take his wife and kids and steal them from the woman who owns them. And Huck says, “Oh, my god.” He says, “Oh, that woman — that woman never did any harm. Oh, he’s going to steal. He’s going to steal, going to do a terrible thing.” Just then two slavers caught up, guys chasing slaves, looking for Jim. “Anybody up on that raft with ya?” Huck says, “Yeah.” “Is he black or white?” “White.” And they go off. And Huck says, “Oh, my god. Oh, my god. I lied. I lied. Oh, I did a terrible thing, a terrible thing. Why do I feel so good?” But, you see, the goodness of Huck, that stuff that Huck’s been made of, you see, all been buried, it’s all been buried. So the human touch, you see, it’s disappearing.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Anna Deavere Smith, On the Road: A Search for American Character. She’s playing the legendary broadcaster, oral historian, Studs Terkel. I want to play another excerpt from another one of Anna Deavere Smith’s pieces. This is from Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, called “Swallowing the Bitterness.” Here, Anna Deavere Smith is giving life to a Korean shopkeeper in Los Angeles, Mrs. Yung Sun Ha.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: [playing Yung Sun Ha] I used to believe America was the best. I watched in Korea many luxurious Hollywood lifestyle movie. I never saw any poor man, any black, until 1992. I used to believe America was the best. I still do. I don’t deny that because I am a victim. But at the end of ’92, when we were in such turmoil and having all the financial problems and all the mental problems, I began to really realize that Koreans are completely left out of this society, and we are nothing. Why? Why do we have to be left out? We didn’t qualify for medical treatment, no food stamp, no GR, no welfare, anything. Many African Americans who never work got minimum amount of money to survive. We didn’t get any, because we have a car and a house, and we are high taxpayer. Where do I find justice?
OK. OK? OK. OK. Many African Americans probably think they won by the trial. I was sitting here watching them the morning after the verdict, and all the day they were having a party. They said everything — all of South Central, all the churches, and they say, “Well, finally justice has been done in this society.” Well, what about victims’ rights? They got their rights by destroying innocent Korean merchants.
AMY GOODMAN: Anna Deavere Smith, from Twilight, from the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Tell us about these performances that you do as you embody different people, and each one — we just played one person you embody, but you change, you transform from one person to the next.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, when I was a girl, my grandfather told me, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” I grew up in a fairly segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, and I suppose my journey has been to get over the fact that I was put in one place and told that’s where I belonged, and I wanted to know more, and I didn’t think that from that position I could exercise my curiosity. And then, as you know, Whitman wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him. So that’s what I’ve been doing in these plays. Actually, I’ve done thirteen of them before Fires in the Mirror got some attention.
And so, I think of myself as putting myself in other people’s words, the way you’d think of putting yourself in other people’s shoes. So, by performing Studs over and over again, I’ve learned some things about resistance and about power. And by performing Mrs. Yung Sun Ha over and over again, I’ve learned some things about loss. And I suppose, you know, it doesn’t matter how many people you interview, you do come back to some of those essential themes.
AMY GOODMAN: In this time where civil liberties have, to say the least, been repressed for many people, suppressed. Thousands of people have been rounded up. We don’t know their names. They often don’t know their charges against them. Many have been deported. How does your work reflect this in these last years?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: You know, I don’t think it does. However, I’m going to have the opportunity here at the Aspen Ideas Festival to recite a speech that I like very much of the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan addressing, actually, Howard University at the time that people were questioning Nixon’s behavior. And it’s — I would say it’s the most eloquent piece of literature that I’ve come upon about civil liberties. But I don’t think that my work deals with that, especially in the way that you might like to see it deal with it.
AMY GOODMAN: But you give voice to people that, while they may be able to speak, often other populations don’t hear those voices.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, my goal is to make communities through my work that don’t exist yet. So, for example, in my new play, Let Me Down Easy, which for all intents and purposes is about mortality and healthcare, on the other side of it I have athletes. I mean, so I sort of am always putting together things. If you think of my work like a dinner party, it’s having people at the table who you’d never think of having at the table together. So, in that way, it’s not just giving voice; I think it’s also making juxtapositions of ideas that don’t really come to mind immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: You also perform on television, West Wing.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Here we are in a presidential year. What did that do for your art, to your art, to you?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Well, that was in interesting time, because it’s not — The West Wing is the least of it. I had actually spent five years in Washington interviewing media, presidents, historians. I interviewed three presidents, went on the Dole campaign and the Clinton campaign in ’96, interviewed 520 people and wrote a book called Talk to Me. I’m sad to tell you — sorry to tell you that most of the people behaved the way that a historian told me Jefferson behaved, which is that it was very hard to find Jefferson in verbal undress. So, after 520 interviews, I can’t say that people told me as much as I would have thought.
But at the same time that I was in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, The American President, I had also been in Washington for five years, trying to learn something about how the people who have the power of the media, the power of decision makers, how they are. And I think it’s a very small group of people who are not as connected to the general public as we would like to think. There is the illusion that they are, but they are not. And certainly, if we talk about people who are really suffering or who are really in need, I think there’s a great distance to be — there’s a huge bridge that we still don’t have yet in our culture.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you maintain authenticity as an artist?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: That’s a very good question. Well, I hope I do. I don’t want to sit here and presume that I do or even know what you mean by "authenticity." I will say that I have tried to escape the trap of being caught in the privacy and the safety of a studio — the same is true of my work as an academic — and that by using real people, constantly going into the world, constantly going to the world as the place where I find meaning and resources, let’s — I won’t be as presumptuous as to claim my own authenticity, but I will say that I work very hard to stay connected with the world at the same time that I’m concerned about developing my own skills.
AMY GOODMAN: You end your book Letters to a Young Artist with the section “The Death of Cool.” What do you mean?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: “The Death of Cool.” Well, you know, there was The Birth of Cool, you know, Miles Davis. I think we should have the death of cool. I talked to Wynton Marsalis about it. He said, “Yeah, I think it’s time for it to be dead.” He said, “When I talked to Miles, Miles only had — Miles told me it’s only one answer to any question: the answer was no.” And so, I think the answer should be yes and that we should be willing to be emotional and passionate, and the sort of studied nonchalance that we see in the media, you know, the kind of cynicism and even know-it-all postures that people have I’m not so sure invite the kind of engagement that we need at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Anna Deavere Smith, thank you very much for joining us. Her latest book, Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind. We’re here in Aspen. She is going to be speaking and performing at the Ideas Festival here. We’re broadcasting from the oldest public access TV station in the country; it’s called Grassroots TV.