An Interview with Anna Deavere Smith

[Theater Artist, Anthropologist]
Female U.S. national security advisors, in order of appearance:
Nancy McNally, as played by Anna Deavere Smith
Condoleezza Rice

An Interview with Anna Deavere Smith

[Theater Artist, Anthropologist]
Female U.S. national security advisors, in order of appearance:
Nancy McNally, as played by Anna Deavere Smith
Condoleezza Rice

An Interview with Anna Deavere Smith

Chinaka Hodge
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I first saw Anna Deavere Smith’s work on video. Remember video? Like, actual VHS? That’s how long I’ve been an überfan. I was a high-school junior, and my humanities teacher, esteemed author and educator Rick Ayers, popped in a tape of Twilight: Los Angeles. Twilight, the critically acclaimed one-woman theater piece, starred Ms. Deavere Smith, and was based entirely on verbatim interviews of those affected by the 1992 Rodney King riots. I was spellbound by the way she was able to toggle between perspectives, generously and deftly moving between portrayals of Korean American store owners, Baptist preachers, and grieving mothers. By twelfth grade I was plotting how to meet the genius. When I heard she was on the faculty at NYU, I applied, got in, and began asking how I could audit one of her classes. I quickly discovered how sought-after she was, and four years passed without even a chance encounter. So I made do. I took study breaks as I watched one of her TV pieces, Fires in the Mirror, incessantly. I followed nearly religiously as she played Nancy McNally on Aaron Sorkin’s television masterwork The West Wing. If I had Showtime right now, I’d be tuned in to see her on Nurse Jackie.

But I don’t, and I’ve been going through A.D.S. withdrawal. So I was thrilled when the Believer asked me to interview her as she visited the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for a run of her latest piece, Let Me Down Easy. One of my own theater pieces, Mirrors in Every Corner, which ran in San Francisco, had garnered a bit of attention from the press, and nearly every interviewer drew parallels between her work and mine. Those connections were the highest of compliments. As a theater-maker, educator, and performer, Ms. Deavere Smith has set a standard above aesthetic reproach for the better part of three decades.

But how do you interview the best interviewer in the game? How do you acknowledge the magnitude of your hero’s impact on your life, and still maintain a modicum of professionalism? It seemed like the best way for me to honor what I love best about Anna Deavere Smith’s process was to crowd-source at least some of the interview questions. So the conversation Deavere Smith and I had was provoked, in part, by questions from fellow playwrights, thespians, academics, community organizers, and spiritual leaders.

We met at a café near San Francisco’s Union Square a few hours before showtime. I had a chamomile tea. She ordered a large Diet Coke. Not one hair on her head was out of place. She answered each question with the gentle expertise of a seasoned artist and the benevolence of an effective educator. She was sifu, maestra, and virtuoso. I was so nervous that I made up words. The conversation left me with the feeling that I might never again sit with someone so wise. It was well worth the wait.

—Chinaka Hodge


THE BELIEVER: When you were twelve, what did you want to be when you grew up?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Twelve, I don’t know. I don’t remember having thoughts about that until high school. That’s kind of strange. I don’t know why I wouldn’t have thought about it. Maybe I did, but I don’t remember thinking about it.

BLVR: When you were in high school, was it theatre immediately?

ADS: No, no, no. That didn’t come till later. I wanted to be a linguist.

BLVR: What was the first show that you were in?

ADS: I was in shows in my elementary school, and then I did a lot of things in church. I didn’t do anything in junior high, but then in high school I think I was in one play, maybe two, but they were more like revues. It was an all-girls school. We didn’t have a full-fledged drama program. I don’t think we ever did a real play.

BLVR: Do you remember your first church performance?

ADS: I don’t, but I have a very clear memory of being very young and my mother teaching me––or maybe learning on my own––the Sermon on the Mount. Part of me thought it sounded sort of silly or over-the-top. Then I performed it in the basement of a Baptist church––which wasn’t my church, it was my father’s church––on a Sunday afternoon, and I was surprised at how well it was received. The whole time I was learning it, I had a sense that this was something I could do. Do you know what I mean? And I’ve always been good at remembering things. I would having to memorize things for church, and I’d learn it walking down the street to church, which isn’t a very good thing to confess.

BLVR: In your lifetime, what have been your greatest moments of joy?

ADS: Oh, there’s a lot. The first one that comes to mind is a trip that I took to Lake Tahoe when I had finished my second year of acting school, here in San Francisco at ACT. I was very happy to have had the nerve to go and ask if I could teach at their summer training conference. And they said I could, and I had about a week off, and I had been working very hard all year before that; first of all preparing an application to the Yale drama school — I worked every single day on it, I did not get in, and the rejection––I took it real hard. I had final projects and things I had to do well at. So I had this week off and so I went to Lake Tahoe and I jumped in the lake, and it was so… freezing cold. I could barely bear it, but it was so beautiful! And growing up on the east, you know, the whole thing of “Lake Culture” and “Mountain Culture” – well “Lake and Mountain Culture” put together — it was a brand new thing for me. I remember feeling in that cold water that joy, it was just sheer joy.

BLVR: What’s the art outside of theatre that inspires you?

ADS: It’s not just art. I love so much anything I look at that seems to have some aesthetic to it – and it could be an accident like Lake Tahoe or Victoria Falls or Aspen — anything that is naturally beautiful is very inspiring to me. And I’m very interested in modern art. You never know when you’re going to trip over something that’s going to inspire you. I was very inspired by the music of Robert Ashley and Meredith Monk and John Adams and Steve Wright, and I had no reason to be. Nothing led me to that music except accident, but it all really affected my work — anything does that I’m able to understand immediately, which at the same time is outside of my realm of understanding; in other words, that doesn’t come to me from any consecutive thing leading up to it.

If you looked at my biography, what I had done or been listening to when I came upon some odd, weekend-long radio station playing minimalist music in my walk-up apartment in New York in 1976, or something like that––there’s nothing that if you looked at it, it would be, Oh, she did this, she did that: of course she would be drawn to it. So when it happens to me, where it’s way outside the realm of what I should be interested in, yet there’s a connection and I’m really connected and I’m not struggling to know it – I find that to be very inspiring. Then, after experiencing it, I find out, Oh, that’s what it is, now let me learn more about this.

To be drawn to something and changed by something, free from the way we think about “art appreciation” or art education… I certainly have to stand for that, because that’s what I teach and that’s what I do. We try to think about art appreciation in a logical, consecutive way, but in all honesty, I know that the truly transformative aesthetic experiences happen on a pattern way outside of the realm of that.


BLVR: I saw your latest theater piece, Let Me Down Easy, during its opening week at The Berkeley Rep. In the show, which is themed around sickness, health care and death, you interview all types of folk, from Lance Armstrong to Eve Ensler to Texan Republican cowboys…

ADS: Yeah, I interviewed 320 people, so… a lot. There were four productions before this production, and those were very different. They had a human rights focus. Then I decided focus it on American health care when the president was rolling out his health care bill, so that the play could be a part of that conversation, and hopefully do some of the work that politics can’t do, just because the language of politics is so … extreme. It’s the haute couture language. It doesn’t really… it’s not people. It’s overly self conscious and it’s isn’t about truth––okay, so that’s a little cocky for me to say, but it’s not meant to be truthful; it’s meant to cause you to feel in an extreme way. Our enterprise is to walk in that grey, murky area. So I wanted to tell the human side of the story and to enter that into it.

BLVR: I’m an acquaintance of one of the people you portray in Let Me Down Easy. Elizabeth Streb is a choreographer, extreme dance artist, and MacArthur Genius. I met her as we both traveled as U.S. Artist Delegates to the World Social Forum in Kenya in 2007. She’s the first person you’ve interviewed that I know personally. And she’s such a personality of her own.

ADS: Something I’ve learned, particularly because of the human rights interest I have, is that some people have a gift to actually be able to be uncomfortable, I mean physically uncomfortable. I admire that; I don’t have that. I’ve heard a lot about that trip to Nairobi. What was it like?

BLVR: Well, you know, the World Social Forum is an annual gathering that moves from city to city every year, in response to the G8’s Economic Forum. It’s designed to be a platform for the people affected by the decisions the G8 makes in their little vacuum, to gather and decide what are the social issues that need to be discussed. But the trip, for me, was full of discomfort, a lot of discomfort. The poverty is there. And just the way The World Social Forum entered into Nairobi, I think in a particularly intrusive way… partnering up with the wrong hotels, with the wrong––I think––vendor service providers. There was a big riot that happened right inside the stadium. In many ways the people of Nairobi were being exploited the entire time. Conversely, and I think really importantly, forty thousand people from around the world descended into the same city to talk about these important issues.

ADS: You know, I have a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit organization] and it takes a lot of my time and focus right now. One of the things I think a critic could say is that I labor too much over the comfort of the people who participate. I’m mostly interested in people who are doing uncomfortable work; either they’re nomadic, or they’ve given over their skills, at least temporarily, to issues of social justice. So if I can grab funding to bring them together, in any way, why not have comfort be tantamount? And I don’t mean luxury, I just mean efficiency, so that they can really be free to do what we’re supposed to be doing in these brief encounters that we have. It’s not like there’s an ongoing institute where we can go and explore ideas and exchange bits of our imagination. So I feel that it is strategically critical that we find a way to take care of all of that, so that the real––so you can use the time to do uncomfortable things, and to do uncomfortable work.


BLVR: Where do you draw the line of “verbatim”? How much of the interviews do you include in full in your shows?

ADS: Well, what are your concerns in asking this question?

BLVR: I mean how important is it to you to represent the exact wording of the person you’ve interviewed?

ADS: This is a complicated question, because you could be asking a question related to a certain question that I started to hear in the last six years from students – not my students, but if I go and speak: What is my responsibility? I’d never heard that question before, so I became very curious. If everybody’s asking me that, then I know it’s not an original question. I know that there’s a bunch of teachers passing around an essay that a whole lot of kids are reading. [laughs] I just don’t know who that person is, and I need to find out, so I can read the essay. So that makes me a little nervous, because I don’t know what author I’m responding to.

What I will say, speaking in the dark, is that my interest is the pursuit of expression. My journey is about finding expressive moments, so that means everything. I’m more interested in expression than narrative. There are a variety of people who I’m compared to, or who are compared to me, and I know that’s not what’s leading them. The great thing is that each artist is lead by something. I’m lead by a search for expression – unique expressive moments, physically and verbally.

BLVR: How do you know, in an interview, when you’ve hit that expressive moment?

ADS: That’s what happens from talking to so many people for so many years; I know when something’s really original.

BLVR: Is it an expression on their face? Is it a light that goes off in your head?

ADS: No… they depart from something they’ve been doing, which means to me that they’re entering a more creative moment in their speech. One of the things I’ve felt so badly about for my students in the last five years is, one, that their voices are three octaves higher than anybody’s should be, for vocal health, and two, that everything ends like a question. I sit in my graduate class at NYU, and say, “Watch your inflection.” But they can’t break it! Now, they weren’t born talking like that, but they’re probably given over seven to eight years of their life to that horrific, inflective behavior. They think it sounds smart. They think it sounds not just smart, but that it’s undercutting how smart they think they really are. Do you know what I mean? So I’m trying to break them of that; to say: If you’re so smart, just be smart. If you’re offering an idea, just offer the idea.

BLVR: In Let Me Down Easy, there are two moments that I was wondering about. In one, you take off a wedding ring, and I was wondering if it was the character’s wedding ring. Then there’s another moment where the character blows her nose three times…

ADS: No, I blow my nose because I have to blow my nose. I never wear a wedding ring in the show. I wear a series of two rings for a person who wore her rings that way, then I move them to the way that Eve Ensler wears her rings, which is a stack of four. Then there is a man who wears his wedding ring on his right hand, which is a European custom.

Psychological realism may have lead us down ultimately a problematic track. Stanislavsky talked about the Method, and how it is absolutely essential that the true-seeming moment seem real, but the theatre is no more real than a piece of orchestral music or a dance step, right? People don’t walk like that. Still, if we’re going to justify why we should exist at all against the presence of reality TV, that means pushing ourselves to go further. So theatre at its best may seem like real talking, but actually it must have poetic value, and aesthetic value. What I’m cruising around for, as I talk to people, are moments when their language has aesthetic value. Then, like a photographer taking many, many shots, I’m editing it down to the one that makes you go Whoaaaa, what a picture!––and that’s the moment. It’s verbatim in as much as whatever I do select, I make every utterance they made. Not just words, but utterances.

The twenty people I play in Let Me Down Easy all had an idea that I could never have had, and they express themselves more beautifully than I ever could have. I hope they’re teaching me something that helps me become a more expressive vehicle myself outside the play. That’s what leads everything I do. It leads my editing, it leads everything.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned other folks in the field, to whom you get compared all of the time…

ADS: Well, not compared. What I meant to say was that when people say to me, “Oh, you gotta go see blah blah blah, it’s like your work,” what is interesting to me is that, in this moment, none of us need to be doing anything like anybody else. I say to kids who want my advice, Don’t do what I did, because the paradigm is changing. I was trying to change something, to push it further, so don’t waste your time doing what somebody else has already done. The frontier, the Gold Rush––why would you do that? To me, there are cultural gold rushes unloading all over the world––that’s what’s really great. It isn’t all going to be centered in the United States and in Europe, right? We are moving, so move with it.

That’s background for saying that when I go and see these are things that are considered, I suppose, cousins––people trying to introduce me to my cousins––I see that people seem to have different aspirations. Some people are creating characters; that’s close to one aspect that I do. Some people are interested in the social justice aspect. Some people are interested in real words. Some people are interested in making narrative in new ways. I mean, would you say that Lyle Ashton Harris and Carrie Mae Weems are doing the same thing? No. I don’t know. Maybe Lyle and I should be compared to one another. Maybe I have more in common with Lyle than with some theatre artists, right?

BLVR: Or Kara Walker, maybe.

ADS: Well, I don’t think Kara Walker. That’s high praise, but why I say Lyle is that in his earlier works, he dressed himself like the figures he was trying to make. I own one piece of his where he’s dressed like Billie Holiday, and another where he looks like a boxer. And he goes much further than me, because he really embodies it much more. Do you see what I’m saying? Maybe it would be interesting to think outside of the box of theatre, to see where the real linkages are.

BLVR: Do you listen to Hip Hop? Who’s your favorite emcee?

ADS: Sure. How could you not listen to Hip Hop? I remember being at the Democratic Convention, Kerry v. Bush, and I remember people were walking around saying that the next election was going to be a Hip Hop caucus, or a Hip Hop election. Those were sexy words to hear, but what I didn’t realize is how much liberation around the world is informed by Hip Hop. So the kids in Tahrir Square, whatever they were saying in Egyptian was to the beat of Hip Hop. I invited a Hip Hop artist from France, who’s French Algerian and who just won a lawsuit against Sarkozy. His music is Hip Hop — it’s French Algerian Hip Hop, and it’s music for resistance, it’s political music. I think a lot of kids all around the world have grabbed the political objective of Hip Hop and used it with great force. They have caused change. Hip Hop is an enormous cultural movement, and an enormous business achievement, and it has proliferated. But in this country, I’m not sure. I don’t know how much it helped Obama, you?

BLVR: Well, obviously, as someone who was born after the mid-seventies, I’ve never known life without Hip Hop. I am a subscriber and practitioner. But as a state-side political force, I think we have a long way to go. Deeper, maybe? I was part of that whole group of folks that were like, In 2008, Hip Hop is going to take over the world, the Hip Hop generation is going to elect the next president…

ADS: And it didn’t elect the next president, but it did a lot for the world. Why is it that elsewhere in the world it can become music of liberation, and here you could make an argument that it’s anything but liberation? It doesn’t necessarily liberate women. And I think it causes people to buy into, and get deeper and deeper and deeper into a kind of popular culture that is not delivering to the real world. For the common, walking kid who’s in danger, it’s not teaching them how to subvert the power around them and to do their part to make us behave more equitably with our resources. At least in this country, I don’t see it. But we have to credit them for the Arab Spring, I mean, we have to. We can’t look at Arab Spring and Tahrir Square without going, Man, they’re talking Hip Hop language.


BLVR: West Wing. The Nancy McNally character. What are some of the choices that you made, knowing that the Condi Rices of the world exist, and the Colin Powells of the world exist. Did the reality of them influence your process and preparation?

ADS: Well, when I was asked to come do that part, it was in August of 2000, and there was some discussion that if Bush became president, Condoleezza Rice would become his national security advisor. I was at the time a tenured professor at Stanford, and I knew Condi because she was the provost, and I had a variety of occasions to meet her and meet with her. So I said to Aaron, when I got to the set, Thanks for thinking of me for this part. Were you thinking of Condoleezza Rice? And he said, Who? So my joke is that I’m the first African American national security advisor, because she didn’t become so until November.

BLVR: Was there anyone else you had in mind as you prepared for the role?

ADS: Yeah. I called Sandy Burger, who was a national security advisor, all the time, and asked for his advice about the scripts. I don’t think I was thinking so much about Colin Powell. To me, Secretary Albright is really responsible for why this role was written for a woman. She felt they needed a secretary of state in the show, which they didn’t have at the time. They were filming on her street one night, and I remember watching as she went over to the producer and said, “You need a secretary of state, because the Chief of Staff should not be doing all those things, and it should be woman.” So she takes credit for me having gotten me the role.

The fact is, when you get a script in television, you have very little time to prepare, and I was not a regular, so I was never there for the table reads. Most of the time, I would get a call the night before, and I’d have to be ready to get on the last flight out of New York. Then I would get there, open up the script, and hope that I was going to be able to learn it by the morning. Because Nancy McNally doesn’t speak real English. She says a couple of words, then she says some very complicated things about countries that are hard to pronounce. So it was a matter of, Will I be able to train my tongue, by six o-clock in the morning, to say this? I didn’t work on her in the sense of thinking what she would be like. The language lead. The expressiveness in the text.

I see myself as a progeny of Aaron Sorkin and part of a great parade — an archive of characters that he’s given to American cultural history and the world. I see myself walking in that shoe, rather than designing Nancy McNally, if that doesn’t sound too falsely humble. But it’s what I believe.

BLVR: What are the benefits of being able to stand back and be a thespian, as opposed to having to cultivate and create a person, like you do in your shows?

ADS: Well, it’s just a different type of thing. This interview with you is making me think that maybe I shouldn’t only be perceived as a theatre artist, because there are so many different things I have to do to do this work, that would be absolutely irrelevant to what seems to be a cousin to the work––acting in television and movies.

I’m a journalist. Some would say that the things I do have a relationship to anthropology. I desperately want to be a part of the conversation about social justice, and I desperately want to be a part of the conversation about making our resources more equitable. I have chosen to do that in the theatre. But well before I come into the culture of making theatre — well before I choose a director or meet a director, well before I start coming to rehearsal — I’m out in the world doing a lot of things to put my work together. Then there’s a period which is about getting the work ready for an audience, and the audience coming. But that, too, is only a period, because if the work is effective, I’m participating in conversations beyond the work that are about the issues the work is trying to raise. So the theatre is the skill set that I have, but it could have been documentary films, it could have been essays. I guess I’m trying to use theatre as a medium to attract attention to the things that concern me and the things that concern others.

BLVR: Is there a question you wish that you were asked more often in interviews?

ADS: No. I mean… no. What about you?

BLVR: I wrote a play about a white daughter born naturally to a black family in the Bay Area, between 1980 and the present, and I’m constantly asked about the real or fake qualities of race, which I think is a productive question the first or second time, but after a while it’s like, I don’t know. I wrote the play because I’m trying to figure out what it means to be black or to be not black. So it becomes tiresome.

ADS: But your dilemma seems to be more about your relationship to that question. I don’t know that there’s any question that anybody could get tired of, because to me that would be like asking Jessye Norman if she gets tired of singing Ave Maria or Amazing Grace. Or Aretha Franklin, Respect, is she tired of singing that song? There are certain questions that people will come with, and I think that’s a good thing, even if it’s the same one every single time.

My thing about that question of my responsibility is also about how it’s asked, which goes back to that upward inflection stuff, ‘cause it usually sounds like this: UMMmm….. I’M jus’ kinda CURioussss… Do youuuu––so let’s just imagine where this is, Stanford, Wesleyan, a school like that, and there’s a line of people waiting to ask a question––I’m jus’ CURious… do you feel any responsa-bility fer yer CHARacters, er fer yer whateveryourcallthemandcouldyousaysomethingaboutthat? It’s like the I’M JUST CURIOUS upward inflection… Tell me what you’re trying to say. That’s why I think it’s coming from an essay, and in a way it’s not the real question. The real questions is something like, ‘Do you take advantage of people?’ Or, ‘Is that really what they said? Let me see it. Play the tape. That’s the question. And that’s why I go, What are you really asking me?

BLVR: But if a student asks you that, ‘Play me the tape. Are you taking advantage of them…?’

ADS: If a student asked me that, I would tell them what I told you: I’m a student of expression. I heard it, I saw it, and I want other people to hear it and see it, because I think it explains something about something going on around us, right? And it’s beautiful. It’s like taking a picture of a beautiful person or a beautiful flower or a fast car. And it’s very exciting to me.

But that type of question coming from that type of voice — I’m not entirely sure that I want to share my creative space, or to share this real person, with that asker. Because it’s not a court of law, and when I interviewed them I didn’t set up a court of law. I don’t want them to get attacked by that attacker, right?

But if the question is ‘Do I feel that I’m taking advantage of them?’, the answer is: They all have a release that they read. And I think that the areas that I tend to go into to do interviews are areas where people would stand on a mountaintop and scream their story; I just happened to be there. These are people who really want to say this, and really want to be heard. So I’m already inconsequential.

Let’s talk about the sense of responsibility for the verbatim; what does that come from? When I’m speaking verbatim, I’m not adding things––unless I made a mistake. The beauty that came out of that mouth––my job is to try to remember all of the details. So there’s a women who’s saying, in the show, “Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.” But that’s not what she says, she says “Puh”––full-minute ummmm––“Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.” We go in the room. We shut the door. We play the tape. I have brilliant people around me, people who listen better than I do, and I might think it sounds this way, but I have an extraordinary dialect coach who says, “No, it sounds this way.” So that’s where I learn. And I’m not learning it because I’m trying to be responsible; I’m learning it because I think that’s a very interesting linguistic design.

There seems to be something moral in the question, but it’s not a moral issue. When you’re finished with this interview, you may or may not give the context for each thing that I say. Would giving the context be more moral? No. You’re the author. You’re expected to be the author. You want to be the author. And you are going to be the author.

BLVR: You interviewed your aunt for your most recent show. Is there a difference between playing her and someone you’re not related to?

ADS: No no no no no no no. We deliver the same amount of attention and time to each person. The only thing that’s relevant about my choice to interview my aunt — the only living woman in my mother’s family — is bringing to the stage that particular beautiful sound of negroes in Baltimore who lived through segregation. I suppose a very smart linguist could tell us why it’s evident in educated negroes who nonetheless started their childhoods in a segregated city, eventually able to go swimming and eat in restaurants and live in buildings with white people. A very, very smart linguist might be able to tell us what the trajectory is in my aunt’s language. They might say, Well, it’s clear she’s from Idaho, but she spent some time in Texas. Does that make any sense?

BLVR: It does, it does. But does it feel different in your body to play a relative?

ADS: No, no. Though when my aunt says, “Your Aunt Esther, your Uncle Clarence,” these are all people who are very, very important to me in my life. So, to evoke their names in public, coming from me — who fled from psychological realism, and who fled from the notion of writing plays about myself — at this point in my career, it’s a very rich experience to be calling out the names of the people who are responsible in many ways for who I am.


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