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Anna Deavere Smith puts herself into other people’s words

Anna Deavere Smith, actor, playwright and activist, says she has been trying to become America, word for word. By conducting interviews and creating a narrative, she aims to make a current problem come alive. Deavere Smith offers her Brief but Spectacular take on listening to people.

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  • John Yang:

    Finally, we turn to another installment of our series Brief But Spectacular, where we ask people about their passions.

    Tonight, actor, playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith, widely known for her roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.” She has also earned critical acclaim for her one-woman shows. The latest, “Notes From the Field,” recently aired on HBO.

    Smith shares her unique process for getting into character.

  • Anna Deavere Smith:

    When I was a girl, my grandfather said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you.

    And I have been trying to become America word for word. In the way that you would think about putting yourself in other people shoes, I’m putting myself in other people’s words.

    I interview people, and I learn what they say and try to put together a lot of disparate parts of interviews in one whole, in order to make a current problem come alive.

    There are certain points in any interview that I do that people start to speak in a way where the rhythm, you know, leads me to believe that there’s emotions stored in there. And so, as an actor, emotions are my fuel, and those are the types of moments that I want to reenact on stage.

    Drinking malt liquor. This is not the time for us to be playing the lottery or to be at the Horseshoe Casino. This is not the time for us to be walking around.

    I was a mimic as a child. And, you know, I guess you could say that what I’m doing now is a more respectable version of that, which was — you know, inevitably, mimicry is a little bit subversive. I don’t mean to be subversive. I’m not an impressionist.

    I’m delighted if audiences think something’s funny, but I’m not making fun of a person.

    My most recent play, “Notes From the Field” was based on my having done 250 interviews around the United States on the subject of what we call the school-to-prison pipeline.

    I’m interested in complicating the narrative and revealing to the people in my audience that there are many narratives. The more roots you have going off in different directions and grabbing the ground, you’re probably going to be a stronger tree. And that would be my objective.

    All of my works of art is a form of activism. I don’t have answers. I don’t indict people. I can let the judges do that. I can let the media do that. I’m a dramatist.

    A drama is always a constructive journey, where something is lost and then it’s going to be regained.

    I went to New Orleans right after Katrina. And to watch people looking around at everything they lost and trying to make some sense and making an impromptu plan is really important to me in how I view the world.

    You know, you could say, oh, my goodness, isn’t that so hard? Doesn’t that make you sad? For me, it’s the opposite. It shows me just how inventive people are.

    I believe that the theater and other art forms are an opportunity to convene people around these issues and ask them while they’re sitting together to do something.

    My name is Anna Deavere Smith, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on listening to people.

  • John Yang:

    You can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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