Anna Deavere Smith calmly stood in front of a packed house on February 7, 2007 in the Performing Arts Center ready to deliver a performance combining acting, journalism, and social commentary. Crediting an interesting and eye-opening theatrical performance, Smith took the audience on a cross-country journey about discovering life in America.
Her performance, Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change, consisted of small vignettes of individuals she had tape recorded by using journalistic techniques and then adapting these interviews to form a one-person act. These individuals, whose role Smith took on, were all found by different people taking her to different people.
Some of the people Smith depicted were Louis “Studs” Terkel, of The Studs Terkel Program that aired on 98.7 WFMT Chicago between the years of 1952 and 1997. Smith also depicted Ann Richards the first woman elected Governor of Texas, a Korean-American woman affected by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a Jewish woman not wanting to turn off a radio on Shabbat, a mother who helped hide the murder of her child, a bull rider, and the owner of an orphanage in South Africa.
Each small sketch brought a different side of Smith’s acting range. The audience laughed along as Smith personified Studs and the rendition of the woman not wanting to turn off the radio. Later in the performance the audience sat in complete silence when Smith gave the heart-wrenching performances of the Korean-American woman, the mother, and the owner of an orphanage.
Between her performances, Smith engaged the audience by telling stories, talking about her life as a playwright, author, professor, and actor on both television and stage. She also talked about what interested her, what inspired her and what she hoped her show would do for people.
It was a performance that, some audience members said, would remain with them for a very long time. Audience members in front rows sat amazed at how she was able to transition so smoothly between sketches.
Smith also touched on what she was trying to accomplish with her journalistic endeavors of recording peoples’ lives in America and the search for the American character.
“I was trying to answer some questions and I was uncomfortable with a lot of things,” says Smith. “I was trying to answer the question ‘what is the relationship of language to identity’. If I listen carefully to someone, will I know who they are, not by what they tell me because people can lie or people may not be very articulate, but can I actually listen to someone, not by what they say, but how they say it.”
She goes on to say that her study of Shakespeare helped propel the question of the connection between language and character, which got her interested in how language is related to identity in real people. Her grandfather was another big influence for her who always said that ‘if you say a word often enough it becomes you.’
This is what she sets out to accomplish with the interviews: learn the words that people have said. She started reading about all different kinds of interviews because of her growing interest in the relationship between a person’s identity and the way he/she says words.
In 1996, Smith was one of the MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as a “genius” grant) recipients for her accomplishment in developing a “new form of theatre.”
“I was working on that question for a long time and I was also trying to solve the problem of diversity in the theater,” says Smith. “When I studied and I would go to the theater every night after school and sit in the second balcony, the theater where I studied, everyone in the audience was white or Muslim or everyone on stage was white and I thought why is that?”
“So I thought if we could bring different kinds of people on the stage that we could bring different kinds of people to the theater,” says Smith. “I wanted to see a more diverse audience in the theater.”
“I didn’t set out to make a one person show and make a new form of theater,” says Smith. “I did start out to try and use the theater in a different way and I’ve always been interested in using the theater as a means of social change. This is what came of all of that.”
Following her standing-ovation performance there was a question and answer period that presented Smith with an opportunity to elaborate on some of her own personal beliefs.
“I profoundly believe that your education should be about the questions that you find and not the answers,” says Smith. “I don’t think education should be about what you should take away. Education is not about that. It sounds like you’re being drained. It should be about bringing the dignity of your own experience.”
“My goal is to not sit in judgment,” says Smith. “My goal is to get as close to the person as possible. It’s hard to be an actor and sit and be judgmental at the same time…The study of acting equals the study of identity.”
Anna Deavere Smith has had an extensive career with a list of titles preceding her name. The enjoyment of all of her different titles lies in her exploration of the unknown and seeking answers to questions she has.
“I like to think about what can happen with us,” says Smith. “I like the potential that something can happen when I meet a stranger in the dark and there’s a possibility that we’ll both walk away from it changed… You just never know. So that’s what I love. That maybe there’s something that’s going to happen here where something will happen for someone or happen for me. That’s what I like about it.”