Interviewing Anna Deavere Smith is intimidating. The 42-year-old African-American playwright and actor faces a journalist’s taperecorder armed with a casual confidence learned from conducting literally hundreds of interviews.
No doubt she’s heard and asked every conceivable question. Aristocratic in posture, a relatively tall 5’9″, with a Medusa head of curls, Smith also has the grace under pressure of a veteran war correspondent – exactly what she is. But the wars Anna Deavere Smith covers are never overseas. Her wars are as Americans as Watts.
Since 1983, Smith has been taping conversations with primarily ordinary people for an epic performance series titled “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” Onstage, she recites verbatim excerpts from these interviews while transforming herself into the speaker. Last year, this monologue series received international acclaim when a segment, Fires in the Mirror, premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
Based on the August 1991 clash between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Fires in the Mirror earned a special Obie citation and the Lucille Lortel Award, then finished runner-up in Pulitzer Prize balloting to Tony Kushner’s celebrated Angels in America. The media anointed Smith the public spokesman on American race relations. Magazines and television talk shows clamor for her. PBS put Fires on American Playhouse in April, under the direction of George C. Wolfe.
But Smith has been unavailable to the majority of interview requests because her current project is far more challenging than any work she’s ever attempted. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, running through July 18 at the Mark Taper Forum, s a result of more than 175 interviews and months of research into the city’s 1992 riots. Driving from a Watts district that resembles Beirut to Hollywood soundstages where the riots are being dramatized, past burnt-out Korean mini-malls and to the Simi Valley courthouse where it all ignited, Smith spoke with anyone who might offer some coherence to the chaos. She interviewed Mayor Tom Bradley and former police chief Dary 1 F. Gates, Anjelica Huston and Rodney King’s Aunt Angela, gang members and cops, ministers and administrators, artists and graffiti “taggers,” lawyers and clients, surgeons and thugs.
The Taper staff, anticipating controversy and eager to explore their personal experiences of the riots, reorganized their development process to support the ambitious world premiere. Smith received a car, cellular phone and driver, translators and transcribers, Hispanic and Asian-American dramaturgs, video technicians, as well as focus group discussions with southern California’s ethnic minorities. Emily Mann, whose Execution of Justice resembled Smith’s docudramas, was hired to direct, and Oskar Eustis, who commissioned both Execution and Angels in America, was drafted to oversee the process.
Stanford University, where Smith has taught drama since 1990, recognized the significance of this project and granted her leave. After all, she teaches a course called “Breaking Down Barriers: Beyond Stereotypes of Race and Gender,” which could serve as subtitle for Twilight (But Smith’s academic style is just as unorthodox as her theatrical work: Her students performed an Arsenio Hall Show and staged the Oprah Winfrey interview with Michael Jackson.)
Despite such support, Twilight is an epic challenge, shifting with each news headline, suspended between the sentencing of two police officers in the King civil rights case and the trial of black suspects in the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny.
Literally living theatre that speaks with an unprecedented immediacy, it resembles South Africa’s “Theatre of Testimony,” which emerged from the Township tradition of acting out a community’s stories. It is also reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s joint Stock Company in England.
Smith stands alone onstage, reciting monologues about the riots to audiences who experienced the riots-and who live in fear and dread of another uprising. The tensions, resentments and violence that crossed lines of gender, race and class get mirrored in one woman.
But in presenting the politics of race, Smith is careful to avoid dogma. Her goal is to create an urban Rashomon that promotes discussion without media interference. Although a series of monologues, Twilight is also a dialogue with “the other”-the audience.
And so, while interviewing Smith, one remains aware of her receptive personality. She watches you watching her. She listens to you listen. just as she does onstage, she absorbs the sensibility and the rhythms of your questions. Chameleonlike, she subtly impersonates your style, your idiosyncratic physical mannerisms, and ultimately seems to tap into your mind – exactly the way she’s tapped into the collective mind of wartorn Los Angeles.
STAYTON: The first preview of Fires in the Mirror at the Pubhc was canceled because the Los Angeles riots seemed on the verge of spreading to Manhattan. Shortly after ft opened, Gordon Davidson invited you to create an original work for the Mark Taper Forum. You immediately proposed a piece on the so-called uprising. Why back-to-back pieces on race riots?
SMITH: It does make it look like riots are my theme, but they’re not. New York closed down, and I was glad when they canceled my show. I didn’t want to be in this dark hole while Los Angeles was burning. I felt this longing to be glued to the television, like most of America. And I was just coming out of that when Gordon saw the show. Also, when I lived in Los Angeles [1986-89, while teaching at USC and UCLA], there were these gated and separate communities, something I couldn’t get used to. Spiritually, that was really hard for me. Maybe coming back to do this piece has something to do with unfinished business about that.
The Taper provided you with the most coveted theatre ticket in Los Angeles: a pass to the federal trial of the four white police officers charged with violating Rodney King’s civil rights. What was your impression of the trial that first day in court?
How white it was. I was shocked. The only groups of people of color who came in were from the public. In my own life I’m frequently in predominantly white atmospheres. But I didn’t expect it there because the trial was so much about race.
Were you in court when the verdicts were read?
Yes, at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Most of the time I’ve spent in the field was under the shadow of the trial. So when they began to read the verdicts, I felt like I was waiting for personal news, afraid to open the letter and see if it was going to be yes or no. Now the piece has a new focus, taking its shape very much around the verdicts. I also slipped into the press conference following the verdicts, posing as a Brazilian journalist. That was a whole different ballgame. I don’t know if I have words for the relationship of the press to the people who were in the public eye. It reminded me of an audition in a very aggressive atmosphere. I’m sure that a lot of these lawyers have acting training.
Do you prefer multi-edmic audiences?
Is it important for my audiences to be mixed? I guess so. I like it when the audience learns about each other, not just about me and not just about the material. It probably sounds dangerously old-fashioned and like a return to the 1970s, but there’s a way in which this style of theatre forms a community. I don’t know how many public arenas there are for these kinds of discussions without media intervention. Otherwise, we just talk with people who are like us. I believe we haven’t found the language for discussing difference yet, and the only way we find that is by talking in it-not about it-and talking in it in these moments of crisis, when our anxieties are so big that we can barely speak.
Has the Los Angeles story been more difficult to find than the Crown Heights piece?
For Fires, I interviewed people for two weeks and did my piece. For Twilight, I’ve interviewed more than 175 people for more than eight months, and it’s still in process. Los Angeles is such a challenge because it’s a more diverse world than Crown Heights. This whole melting pot idea is not going to work there [in Brooklyn], and it doesn’t work here. But it doesn’t work here for more complex reasons than in Crown Heights. Here it’s so elusive, very hard to figure out. In Brooklyn, everything happened on one block. Interestingly, the only time I had that feeling of community here was the courtroom – community that has developed because of this crisis.
How did you select interview subjects for Twilight?
Sometimes by design and sometimes by accident. Tle Taper put me in touch with many of them. And I meet a lot of people socially, and take their number and call them later and interview them. I spoke to Sen. Bill Bradley after I met him at a reception in Washington following the one-year anniversary meeting on the Anita Hill hearings. Bradley wants to find a way to theaffimlize discussions of race, so it was easy to get an interview. Another example was when Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner came backstage after my show in New York. It turned out we had a mutual friend, so we all had dinner, where I met this very interesting woman from L.A.
Was this the woman you asked, “Have you ever considered buying a gun?”
Yes, and who answered, “Only to commit suicide.” This was a bright woman living in a borderline neighborhood who was very, very moved by what had happened, and sad, and talked about being up on the roofs with hoses, trying to keep the fire from burning their homes, and crying as she talked about being in Peter Sellars’s theatre history class at UCLA during the riots. Peter had said the riots were a play about denial, like Long Day’s journey into Night. He told her class, This [riot] is a story about how dad won’t get a new light bulb.’ So next I interviewed Peter, who said he’d also used The Ballad of Jenny” from Threepenny Opera as another example.
Rap artist Sister Souljah wouldn’t talk to you, saying, “That’s the sister who wants to take my words.” Jim Brown, the former professional football player, also was reluctant.
He said no. But then I heard he was having a meeting at his house for the national anti-gang organization, Amer-I-Can, and I went there. Jim Brown walked in and asked, “What are you frowning about?” And I knew he would give me an interview. But while there I met an equally interesting man by the name of Twilight. He’s changed the way I think. He’s probably 24 and has been responsible for the truce [between two of Los Angeles’s most deadly gangs, the Crips and the Bloods]. I marvel at how at peace he seems to be in a world full of violence, South Central L.A. He’s really the guardian of his group and definitely watches out for everybody.
Did his name inspire the title?
In part. A lot of the unrest happened at twilight. Twilight is a limbo time when you can’t tell if it’s light or dark. It can mean the time just before sunrise or just after sunset.
Twilight is the first time you’re using video imagery.
Because media was almost like a character during the riots. People relied on the media for information. Those who couldn’t get any other help used the media as a vehicle for communication. But it’s tricky to find a balance between the video and the spoken word, because the spoken word is not spectacle. Even though I’m a writer, I’m more interested in the spoken part of what I do. All the written part comes as an afterthought. The only reason I’m making a script is so that Emily Mann can do her work. I’m sure this process has some of its roots in African-American history, the black tradition of oral history. But the notion of speech influencing the body really came from my classical training in acting school, which is probably what informs my work more than anything. I trained at ACT [San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre] under Bill Ball, learning a technique he called Heroics. We worked with a voice teacher and a movement teacher at the same time. I’ve used that as the basis of the way I listen to people and the way I work with myself. I treat normal talk like it’s classical text.
What do you call your kind of theatre?
I call myself a lot of different things. I say it’s docudrama. I say it’s performance art, because people have called it that. I call myself a repeater. A re-iterator, rather than i mimic or an impersonator. Of course, it’s story theatre. The people I select to perform are always great story-tellers.
As a playwright, what do you listen for during an interview?
I’m mostly interested in when people fail to say something, like when they maybe say the wrong word or get caught in stutters, because I think character really exists in the struggle to say something. In my more hopeful days I think that American character moves in the struggle to negotiate difference, not in the few moments of success that we’ve had in trying to figure it out. When somebody talks, they may say wonderful things, but if I were to dwell on those I’d end up with 30-second sound bites. I’m more interested in their pursuit for the perfect sound bite. When language just doesn’t work, when it fails, when it falls apart, it usually ends up being a moment or a time, once I try to re-enact it, that brings me closer to what I would think of as the feeling of that person. Then I really begin to feel that it’s not me, that there’s somebody else in there.
That’s when you begin to “wear words,’ as you put it. How did you first arrive at this process?
It all started from watching the Tonight Show in 1979 when Sophia Loren defied the whole language and structure of the show. Nobody laughed. The band stopped playing. And then she was followed by Joan Rivers, who knows the rhythm like nobody else, and she not only reinstated the rhythm, she worked the whole audience into a kind of hysteria. So I thought: This show is about America. I didn’t know why. I was very interested in how Loren’s presence emerged by her resistance to participate in our language. And then I started watching interview shows on television, looking for these places where the rhythm of the show would fail, or when a person’s language would fail. Originally, I was just like paparazzi, like a crazy person, watching interview shows and tape recording them and sitting up all night transcribing them. And then I decided that ordinary people offered more interesting interviews than celebrities.
What did you hope to achieve?