4/5/08

Anna Deavere Smith

My last post touched on government’s role in addressing racial inequity, but since so much of political speech is intended to persuade rather than inform, it's worth seeking out non-political perspectives.

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright, and professor. She may be best known for her recurring roles on TV shows like the West Wing, but it's her work in the theater that makes her a national treasure. Two of her best-known plays deal with racially-charged events. Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities centers on a 3-day riot that followed the accidental death of an African-American child who was struck by a rabbi's motorcade, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 explores the riots that followed first trail of white and Hispanic police officers accused of assaulting motorist Rodney King. 

Smith's technique gives her work a documentary-like quality. She records interviews with hundreds of individuals connected to an event, creates a script from the transcripts of those interviews, and then performs the remarks of every character herself. The viewer is left with an experience that feels intimate and near-comprehensive. 

In this 2006 interview on PBS, she encourages people "to step outside their safehouses of identity," a metaphor for collaborating with those from different backgrounds, and meet at the "crossroads of ambiguity." She goes on to acknowledge the inherit risks of such activity. For those not ready to make that leap, I'll suggest Smith's work can serve as an interim step. Watching one person masterfully portray multiple characters, some with diametrically opposed views of the same event, gives you the sense that understanding 'the other' is not only possible but a goal worth pursuing.

Highlights from the 2006 interview include her depiction of a real estate agent describing the scene at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the 1992 L.A. Riot and her version of Cornel West explaining the difference between optimism and hope.

The video embedded below features four additional pieces, all worth watching.

A Sampler

Portrayed in this clip: Studs Turkle, Reporter @ 1:00; Paulette Jenkins, Inmate @ 6:00; Young Soon Han, Former Store Owner @ 12:20; Brent Williams, Bull Rider @ 18:40.
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In the mood for data instead of drama? Gallop regularly conducts surveys related to race and race relations in the U.S.

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