How do you contribute?
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.
Topic: The Creative Process
Anna Deavere Smith: Well the goal is to tell a story that has multiple points of view for the very reasons that we’ve been discussing; and to, by doing so, indicate on an artistic level that the old idea of the single author, if you will, is flawed. Because it takes ultimately many people to tell the story of a community, or the story of a society.
So that sense of the auguste author who can come in and speak for women and speak for men, I don’t believe that. Maybe your imagination is sufficient; maybe not, you know? My imagination comes into play. But before doing that, I would like to know how a man feels, or how another woman feels about something. I’m studying that because I understand that I’m one human being with a set of experiences that color my lens. And I’ve always been – since I was a little girl – very interested in how that person across the town, across the street, how they think. And understanding I could never think like they think, but wanting to try to do something about that gap. Not even in a humanistic way.
It was really something that bothered me. It was really something I worried about. So first of all, I hope that by being present, as 46 people say in Twilight, the play about the  Los Angeles riots, and playing a Korean woman whose store was burned to the ground by African-Americans; or playing one of the African-American kids who beat up the white man; or playing Daryl Gates, the very unpopular Chief of Police, then it suggests to an audience that they don’t have to sit in their one position.
And by the way, when I come out at the end and take my curtain call, I’m still me. So did I really lose anything? No. In fact maybe I gained something. Aesthetically and artistically, what I’ve been trying to contribute is something about details that maybe there’s a wider variety of human beings than we thought about. And we can tell compelling stories without having to have those same stereotypes that we’ve been thinking about over and over again.
So I’ve been trying to contribute something about variety that I had hoped – and I haven’t succeeded – would change the very nature of the way theater is produced, and who comes to the theater. Because the theater is a very segregated place. Most of the people who go to theaters in this country are white people. My generation had many promising directors, and producers, and writers. And they’re not around. They’re not making theater, and it breaks my heart.
And I feel in some ways that I haven’t contributed nearly enough in terms of what my thought about that was when I first was studying acting in the theater where everybody on the stage was white, and everybody in the audience was white. And I thought, “That’s so weird!”
In San Francisco there’s Asian people up the hill. There’s black people across the bay. There’s every kind of person here. There’s Latinos all over the Mission. How could this theater of this town have everybody white on the stage, unless there was a black guy bringing in a pizza – a character bringing the pizza – everybody else was white? How can that be?
So I said well maybe if I figure out a way to bring in more colors of people onto the stage, more colors of people will come to the audience. That hasn’t happened.
Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007
Anna Deavere Smith talks about storytelling and the importance of theater in the community.
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