Actress, playwright, and performance artist Anna Deavere Smith is best known for her Obie Award-winning Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. Fires in the Mirror, which received a Drama Desk Award, is a one-woman show created from forty-six different character voices all relating the explosion of racial tensions between the black and Hasidic communitites in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991. Her latest work, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a performance piece dealing with the Rodney King case and subsequent riots, is part of the same ongoing series of performances based on interviewing, and then performing, people involved in specific controversial, public events. Smith is currently the Ann O’Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford University. Tricycle caught up with Smith in Manhattan, following the Broadway run of Twilight.
Tricycle: One of the things we talk about in Buddhism could be called “the position of no position,” in which liberation is encouraged, in part, by not being attached to a particular point of view. That seems to be the structural dynamic of your work.
Smith: I do believe that character is a process, that truth is a process, and I am not interested in winning and losing. There was recently an article in Newsweek by Joe Klein, a senior political editor, in which he talked about Clinton. One of the criticisms he has of Clinton is that Clinton talks about character, for example, as a process rather than as a fixed thing. Klein thinks that is disgusting. I think a person like that would be very disturbed by me.
Tricycle: What is the political benefit of not taking a position?
Smith: You know more. That’s political power, I would think.
Tricycle: Do you have an agenda for your audience?
Smith: Well, I don’t know if I have an agenda, but I have a desire. The desire is to create theater that is fuller than traditional theater—that allows us to see more kinds of people represented—and to attract to that theater a more diverse audience of people. Diverse not just in terms of race but in terms of a social class and lifestyle. To try and get people to think of theater as more than this precious thing that only certain people can see, more than high art, but as communities.
Tricycle: By moving through all those diffirent characters—not a fixed character but the process of character—you are challenging anybody who thinks that they have only one place to stand. And most people are thinking that they’re standing in one place. Is there a relationship between that sort of fixedness and racism?
Smith: Oh, yes. White racism is about people who don’t feel so bad about fixed things. But white racism is a fixed thing, and it is perpetuated because of fixedness. Anything that we can do that causes people to desire movement more than fixedness is going to disrupt racism. It doesn’t mean that I’ll never take a position. But I don’t think I’ll ever allow people to stay fixed. Maybe because I know that nobody is fixed.
Tricycle: Where does that come from, in your own experience?
Smith: It was probably something in the way I was raised. My father was a very opinionated person. My mother was not. The men in my family talked a lot. My mother never participated in their big opinionated discussions. And neither did I, because a lot of times what they were saying was absolute nonsense.
This work started as an experiment in listening to language as evidence of identity, and I’ve found that the place where a person is coming into character is exactly the place where linguistically they start to fall apart. Where they are efficient in saying the right thing is not where they are in character, and I know that because I wear the words. The place I feel the fullness of a person is where words fail, because they breathe more and they are creating language—not the language that
they learned. They are stuck with themselves to create utterances.
Tricycle: How do you think that people can best take this message of nonfixedness to heart?
Smith: First of all, what we can do is to be ready—because it’s inevitable. And we might ultimately be very useful to society. Not activists, but very useful. Because the activist is trying to push someone into the future. I think there will come a time whcn there will be a present in which we will be very useful. And that is because I believe instability and nonfixedness are inevitable, are reality. One way to deal with fear is to accept it. Acknowledge it. To give it space.
Tricycle: What is your hope for race relations in this country?
Smith: I have little hopes. Small hopes. The first, to get people to not be afraid of talking about race. And it’s not always fear that keeps people away; a lot of people aren’t interested. Maybe it’s repressed fear. And I know nothing is going to happen until pcople feel that need to be interested. It has to be demonstrated that there is a need for it. My desire is for people to have equal opportunities, responsibilities, and voice. That’s why I do forty-six voices in Fires—because I want to have more voices heard. My feeling is that no one voice should have authority.
Tricycle: What is interesting about your presentation of many voices is your commitment to equality among them, despite the absence of that equality in real life.
Smith: I am often dismayed that the big voice always drowns out the small voice. If we have any hope for race relations, I think it’s creating more and more of a collective of small voices—giving up the idea of the single voice to create unlikely collaborations of little voices. Actually, I recently found myself longing for that really sappy Coke commercial from the seventies which had such great appeal—this big chorus of people singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…. “
Tricycle: You know they re-shot that commercial last year and it failed.
Smith: Did it? Well, that’s what we have to find.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.