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August 11, 2006
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Transcript - August 11, 2006

This is a rush transcript. The copy is not in its final form and will be updated.

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to the rocky mountains of Aspen, Colorado this week.

We're here to catch up with someone who uses her art to help us make sense of the state of our world. Playwright, actress, Macarthur Genius award-winner Anna Deavere Smith. She believes artists have a special duty to get political during these difficult times. And that's just what she does...using a powerful tool that most human beings have at their disposal, but too rarely use: Anna Deavere smith listens. She listens intensely to the authentic voices of regular people she meets at the sharp end of some of the most vexing social issues... from race, to poverty, to injustice. She then faithfully renders these voices word-for-word, syllable-by-syllable in one-woman theater performances that have been acclaimed by critics across America. You've also seen her on television playing the National Security Advisor to Martin Sheen's president on "the West Wing."

We caught up with smith where she is artist-in-residence this summer at the Aspen Institute.

BRANCACCIO: Anna, thanks for doing this.

SMITH: Glad to be here.

BRANCACCIO: Do we listen well?


BRANCACCIO: You made a career out of listening carefully, listening almost aggressively.

SMITH: Well, I'm listening because I'm very very interested in language. And— when I was studying to be an actress, I had classical training, and I was pretty smitten with Shakespeare and very very intrigued with what he understood about the relationship of language to character.

And so I wanted to know more about that. And— that was really the beginning of my own project, which started in the '70s—[called On The Road, a Search for American Character,] where I go around with a tape recorder and ask people to talk to me.

And then I listened to what they told me over and over again and I just keep saying the words over and over again until something happens where I start to give the illusion that I'm kind of like them.

BRANCACCIO: It might be said that Anna Deavere Smith creates a kind of "documentary theater." Her plays are based on real life and her characters on real people. And by the way, that is her playing all the parts. Using only the actual words spoken by those she interviews, and their gestures and mannerisms, she becomes those people.

In "Fires in the Mirror" Smith dissected the Crown Heights riots where a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY erupted after a black child was killed by a car in a rabbi's motorcade... and a rabbinical student was slain by black people in retaliation.

RABBI: A car driven by a Hasidic individual was hit by another car and went up on to the pavement.

KID: and he was like 'hey! He broke the light!' oh yo it's a Jew, man - they never get arrested.

RABBI: The driver seeing that he was definitely going to hit someone deliberately steered to the building to avoid the people.

KID: Then we saw where he was going. And we was like 'oh my god man, look at the kid!'

RABBI: regrettably one child was killed and another was wounded.

BRANCACCIO: Smith tells the story rashomon-style giving each character the opportunity to get their point of view across. For "Fires in the Mirror" she interviewed and portrayed blacks and Jews, housewives and witnesses, and the brother of the slain rabbinical student.

YANKEL BROTHER: I'm here. I'm not going home until there is justice.

BRANCACCIO: and politician and activist the reverend al Sharpton...

SHARPTON: We're dealing with a double standard. We're dealing with a situation where blacks do not have equal protection under the law.

BRANCACCIO: In a striking synchronicity, this play about the Crown Heights riots previewed in New York the week of the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles.

SMITH: The Los Angeles riots happened the night before that play was supposed to have its first— performance in New York.

BRANCACCIO: I didn't realize the timing of this?

SMITH: Exactly. And that play pretty much sold out its run. People wanted to know about race because things had fallen apart. So it wasn't something that was allowing them to go along with their lives as usual without at least thinking.

Because I believe that Americans do have a conscience, like, oh my God— which is what people— how could this happen here in my country? So they wanted to know why, came to the play.

BRANCACCIO: To what extent is it your problem as an artist if the world is going to Hades in a hand basket?

SMITH: Well, I don't know if it's my problem as much as it is my opportunity. I mean, mine personally, if I'm prepared, it's my opportunity to try to engage with people— when things are upside down. And it's my experience that when things are upside down, there is— an opening for a person like me. I mean, I think that— as an actress, in particular, I'm basically a fool, and I see the world upside down. And so— people like politicians— are more trained to see it right side up, or at least to make us think that they're seeing it right side up. So from my upside down position, there's some things I can see.

BRANCACCIO: To help us understand truth?

SMITH: Well, no, I mean, I think when things fall apart— you can see more and you can even— be a part of indicating new ways that things can be put together. And I'm specifically thinking about— my two plays that were about race riots.

BRANCACCIO: The Los Angeles riots exploded when white police officers on trial for beating black motorist Rodney King, were acquitted, even though the beating was captured on videotape.

Anna Deavere smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles" chronicles those riots. For this Tony nominated play, Smith interviewed 200 witnesses, including a real estate agent who took cover at the fancy Beverley Hills hotel during the riots.

CLIPS OF "TWILIGHT...": Elaine Young real estate agent morphs into street gang member ...

YOUNG: There we were at the Beverly Hills Hotel and it was like how far can you go. At a certain point you have to say let me put this out of my mind and go on. That was the mood at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Safety in numbers. Nobody can hurt us at the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's like a fortress and we were just like: 'Here we are and we are still alive and we hope that people will be alive when we come out.'

WATSON: Its was rage, black rage! Yes, I was upset - I was highly upset. That could have been me out there getting my ass whooped and those four officers could have walked after whooping my ass like that. I'm afraid not... I'm afraid not.

WATERS: Mr. President, we want our black men back on America's agenda. They have been dropped off of everybody's statistics and data. They're not in school, they're not employed, they don't live anywhere, they go from grandmamma to mama to girlfriend. And Mr. President, not everybody in the street is a thug or a hood, not everyone is a criminal and if they are Mr. President then what about your violations. Yes, I am angry. We are angry. The fact of the matter is whether we like it or not, riot was the voice of the unheard.

SMITH: You find it important like a reporter really to get out there, to— to sort of meet people where their live, to get this truth from them.

I won't call it truth. Truth is relative. Yeah. Well, because I also— I want to see how they are and how they live.

When I was in LA just going from, you know, South Central to— into a Korean church in full swing on a Sunday morning it was like worlds within worlds within worlds. I felt like Alice in Wonderland. It just blew my mind how— diverse isn't even the word. I mean it was literally like going into different worlds.

And it's not just the words that someone you're interviewing— utters that you're recording, it's the cadence, it's the incidental noises that people make when they speak.

SMITH: Yes. It's the rhythm of the words.

BRANCACCIO: In that rhythm and cadence and the sound of each character's voice, Smith is looking for passion: something that's akin to music to her ears, something that transports her beyond the formal meaning of the words. "singing" - she calls it.

I mean, it's not singing in terms of— ah— ah—ah —which I can't sing. But they are moving beyond the mere mouthing of words to singing something which is deep inside of them, something that is very felt, something about which they have passion.

And If I go to the interview knowing what the answer is, I'm gonna miss it, or wanting the answer to be something. I'm gonna miss that singing. Because it's not the fact of what they say, it's when did they start singing. And that may not be when I would like them to start singing. So I have to come to grips with that.

BRANCACCIO: It was when she was in Washington, DC researching a play and a book about politicians — folks who 'speak' for a living — that Smith had the hardest time finding "song" in the words of those she was interviewing.

What about the language of politicians. There is something disturbing in the way that politicians speak publicly.

SMITH: Well, it's not new. It was a Jefferson Scholar who told me that Jefferson could never be found in verbal undress. And so I think a requirement of Washington is that you have to have your verbal clothes on. And I'll tell you something interesting. When I was in Washington I did 520 interviews. And I suspect that getting ready for those was quite— quite like what you have to do. I mean I was reading books and I was— you know, and I was taking people out for fancy lunches and I was— you know, it was a lot of work.

And yet I didn't— you know, I didn't come away from that with a lot of singing. I came away with a lot of words but not a lot of singing, and a lot of verbal clothes not— hardly any verbal undress. Very little. You know, real artists, we expose our flaws. We long for intimacy. We take our clothes off in— emotionally or in other ways. And maybe politicians cannot be expected to do that.

MCNALLY: Sam, Daniel Goult was a spy.

SEABORN: Oh, my God!

MCNALLY: He was a soviet spy...

SEABORN: Based on what!

MCNALLY: Diplomatic cables intercepted by US Army Signal Intelligence in the 1940's.

BRANCACCIO: Anna Deavere Smith's scrutiny of Washington politics surely prepared her for her most famous fictional role, as the buttoned down national security advisor, Nancy McNally on the TV drama "the West Wing."

BRANCACCIO: How do you hope your work— evoking these characters coming from so many different angles. How do you hope that it moves us in a more positive direction?

SMITH: One of the things I try to talk about whenever I talk to younger people, I do a lot of speaking at universities for example, is out of my experiences of having been in Crown Heights and Los Angeles in the '90s I came away with this metaphor that I call safe houses of identity. That we live in safe houses of identity. And— even in my generation, there was this promise in those— in those days that the— women deciding to be women, blacks deciding to be black, the anti war movement. That there was gonna be this whole new mix up. Everything's gonna be all mixed up. We were all gonna challenge the white hegemony. But what happened was it didn't end up being this mix up. There started to be these little identity camps.

And when I was in LA, I mean this was quite clear. I mean there's the Asians here, the black kids are burning Korean stores, etcetera, etcetera. So what I want to suggest to the new generation, younger kids, is hey guys how about if we come out of those well established houses of gays here, bisexuals here, all these little camps, were all these camps. How about if you come out of the safe house of your identity, where are you gonna end up? So it's kind of fancy words, but I said you're gonna be in the crossroads of ambiguity. And guess what, you can't go back to the house you came out of.

But out here in the middle where there is no house, in this crossroads of ambiguity, we might be able to get something really fascinating happening.

And that's the public space.

SMITH: That's the public space. And I warned younger people it ain't safe. So I don't use words like safety when I teach. I talk about resilience. Knowing how to move, knowing how to be in motion, knowing how to deal with discomfort. So I think we have to get off of where we think we just know everything. And think about becoming more resilient about what we don't know. And getting better at asking questions. And having fewer answers. If we want to accomplish the kinds of things we want to try to accomplish.

BRANCACCIO: Anna Deavere Smith juggles many identities on stage... and in life. She's a tenured professor at New York University and an author. Her most recent book is "Letters to a Young Artist" which offers advice to folks starting out in the arts. The unifying center to all she does? A desire to shine truth and light on an increasingly chaotic world.

SMITH: Anybody in the arts is having to engage in seeing things upside down and in matters of the heart, matters of the mind and matters of the spirit. It's likely that that kind of thinking, that kind of process is useful to anybody whose in the process of living and creating their life. Of authoring their own life. Making your life is ultimately an extraordinarily creative endeavor.

BRANCACCIO: It's interesting— I was talking to a guy I know in New York just the other day. And he's close to unhinged about the state of the world. [He thinks what's going on in Iraq— he stays awake at night about that, he's worried about injustice in our own country.] And so he talks to his therapist about this. And what the therapist says wonderfully is, "Have you tried art?" He doesn't mean painting as therapy. It turned out what he meant was, artists are sort of engaging some of these issues as well. Maybe you should get down to the museum or see a play off-Broadway. Maybe that'll help you come to terms with some of this. That's interesting advice, isn't it?

SMITH: It's interesting advice. At the same time, I think about an interview I did with Brice Marden, and he says, I was just in Madrid. And I thought— "wow— in Madrid— better go see Guernica." And he talks about Guernica as this extraordinary painting, as you know, in part about the war in Spain. And— And he says— and he says, "But— but— oh, yeah, you know, we haven't made our war painting." How come we haven't made our war painting? And I love that question.

BRANCACCIO: But you're saying, where is the great artistic take on our times that may help us understand?

SMITH: Where is the great artistic— processing of that, more than a take. I would call it the processing of it. What's in the way? I don't know the answer. But I think the question has resonance—


SMITH: What's in the way?

BRANCACCIO: Are you worried that we haven't seen it yet?

SMITH: I'm worried IF nobody feels that they can do it or has the courage.

BRANCACCIO: This is a time that takes some courage to speak out on those issues.

SMITH: Takes a lot of courage, that's right.

BRANCACCIO: Do you feel that?

SMITH: Yeah, and I don't think it's because, you know, you're necessarily gonna be jailed for saying the wrong thing. But— we all have a limited amount of time— you know, you have to have the courage that what you're spending your time on is going to be something which is going to allow you to engage with the very public that you want to meet.

BRANCACCIO: You were at a— a big, global health conference in New York not long ago about— curing the diseases of poorer countries. And you performed. What did you think you could bring to a debate about global health? As an artist...

SMITH: I didn't think I could bring anything really. I mean you know, this was a— you know— group of events that were gonna include Clinton and Bill Gates. And so I said yes, but I was kind of scared. And— however, I had just returned from an August, which I spent in Africa working on my new play, Let Me Down Easy, which is about how the human body is both resilient and vulnerable to many different forces.

And I went to Rwanda, after the genocide, — and I went to Uganda to look at— what they were doing with HIV/AIDS and to the north to interview some boy soldiers, and then to— South Africa to look at AIDS there. And so what I did at that global health conference, they asked me to come with some hope.

SMITH AT GLOBAL HEALTH CONFERENCE: I have to first differentiate for you between hope and optimism because I think there is a difference. And this is someone some of you know fairly well, Cornell West - you know Dr. Cornell West, the scholar. So he was talking a lot about despair a few years ago and I went to ask him why he was using that word so much. And this is what he told me:

I use the language of decline, decay, and despair rather than doom, gloom and no possibility because I think any talk about despair is not where you end but where you start. And then the courage and sacrifice come in. But at the level of hope, not optimism. Optimism and hope are different. Optimism tends to be biased on the notion that there is enough evidence out there that allow us to think that things are going to be better. Much more rational, deeply secular. Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says 'it doesn't look good at all.' Says 'it doesn't look good at all.' Says 'we going to make a leap of faith, we going beyond the evidence that kept to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantees whatsoever.' That's hope. That's hope.

SMITH: And— and people responded to it, which I was pleased to see. That there is a place where very serious, smart people come to talk about serious issues. And there is a place where, you know, there's— there is an opportunity to try to speak with them at the place where the heart meets the mind. And that's what I try to prepare myself to do whenever I have the opportunity to do it.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Anna Deavere Smith, thank you very much.

SMITH: Thank you, it's been great. Thanks David.

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