Anna Deavere Smith is an actor, a teacher, a playwright, and the creator of an acclaimed series of one-woman plays based on her interviews with diverse voices from communities in crisis. She has won two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Fires in the Mirror. She has had roles in the films Philadelphia, An American President, The Human Stain, and Rent, and she has worked in television on The Practice, Presidio Med, and The West Wing. The founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, she teaches at New York University and lives in New York City.
Question: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the way the world is headed?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well I will quote Cornell West, who has the best definition of not optimism, but hope. He’s not as interested in optimism and neither am I. And I must point out, to me, that I think your question is an American question that Americans always want to know.
In our country, we always want to know, basically, is it going to be alright? I mean that’s what you’re asking me: Is it going to be alright. I don’t know.
However, given that fact, I’ll quote Cornell who differentiates between optimism and hope by saying that optimism looks out the window and says, “You know, it looks pretty good out there. Based on the evidence, I think it’s alright. It’s alright.” Hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good. It doesn’t look good at all. I’m gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.” Cornell has respect for the struggle.
If the limitations of my experience gave anything to my lens, it is a love of the struggle, and a respect for the fact that part of the human condition is that we are struggling the way that a baby struggles from crawling, to standing, to walking. Now that’s a part of the human condition.
So then to embrace not this short kind of idea of optimism. It’s fine. The fact that, “It looks good. Let’s go.” But to actually say, “It looks bad. Let’s go . . .” Because if we go now, even when it’s bad, we might be able to imagine something powerfully enough that we create leadership because people want to go after that vision of the future.
I do think that what art contributes to the whole enterprise is that, as the people who have spent time trying to turn imagination into actions, imagination into objects, that many of us would like to bring – especially to the abuse in the time when people only want to look to see that it looks good, and therefore I’m going on what I can count on – many of us would like to make a suggestion that causes people to try something hard, and to try to go the other way even if it looks bad.
Recorded on: 08/22/2007