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An Interview with
Anna Deavere Smith
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On August 27, 1993, Anna Deavere Smith presented excerpts from Fires in the Mirror and Twilight  at the Agassiz Theater in Cambridge. The following interview took place in New York City a few days later. During the interview, reference is made to individual characters portrayed in Fires in the Mirror and Twilight.   
[sound sample]  

Kevin L. Fuller (KLF):  Have you ever come close to death? 

Anna Deavere Smith (ADS):  (Laughter.) No. 

KLF:  I open with this question because of its relation to your discussion of the areas where language breaks down. In not losing track of some of these silences or distortions, if you will, as they relate to class, gender, sexuality—and with your ability to animate and embody difference—what do you see as some of the breakdowns in language of contemporary theorists in the context of ideological whiteness? (And when I say this, I'm speaking of an array of cultural workers in the mass media, art, theater, and literature of any color, ethnicity, or race.) 

ADS:  I don't know. I can't answer that. I don't really know enough about contemporary theorists to tell you that. 

Andrea Armstrong (AA):  What about in the theater? Where do you see silences in the theater? 

ADS:  I think the biggest silence is from white people.

AA:  About? Appendx 2 page break 105 | 106 

ADS:  Race. 

AA:  What sort of silence is there? Is it about talking about race completely? 

ADS:  Well, there's that. I think that enough people have told me—people that I know well—have told me that in their private lives they don't really talk about race, whereas in the private lives of black people I know, that takes up 80 percent of every day. It would be rare to find a black person in my experience who didn't make some sort of reference to this, or some sort of reference to power, in the course of a day. What's interesting to me is that the masses of white people don't think about it. They don't talk about it nearly as much as we do. I don't know the case with Latinos or Asians, if they discuss that, and I'm trying to find that out now. I'm trying to open up my own perspective to be more reflective.  And you know, I think that's a dangerous thing to say because I'm learning there are certain turfs and territories and good reasons for those, but even selfishly I would like to know more about their experience so I can understand mine. I wonder if we all have the same image of whiteness, or if it changes—I mean, I was very surprised in the Korean community, for example, this idea that they—the woman at the end of "Excerpts," who says, "I used to think that America was the best." Again, I can't think of very many African Americans who ever thought America was the best; it's in our upbringing to be suspect of our own land where we were born. And so I think that in itself  is important for me to try to get my imagination around. It's not that hard because so many people had really difficult situations, whereas in our case we were taught that we came against our will. It's just really interesting, and I don't know if we'll ever be able to resolve it, except that we have to resolve it, but when will we be free enough from those contacts in the past to meet one another in the moment? I think it's really difficult. 

I still have to make the trip to begin to see this from another person's point of view from other people's points of views, to see this geography of race, just positioning myself a little bit differently, less from the heart, if you will, less from automatic response and more patient, more like stepping back, stepping back, stepping back, stepping back. 
AA:  That reminds me of something you said during the question-and-answer period of your recent performance, that in "Twilight" you were trying to disrupt your own ethnicity, and that blacks—or one black woman in particular—was somewhat suspect of what you were trying to do, not trusting you. So in disrupting your own ethnicity, what is it that leads the black community to distrust? Appendx 2 page break 106 | 107 

ADS:  Well, I think that's very general. I mean, she distrusted me for other reasons. This is Georganne Williams, who is the mother of Damian Football Williams. She mistrusted me because she thought I was the same as the media, and she had had, you know, a less than pleasant experience with one magazine, I think. She was disenchanted with something that was written about her, and she mistrusted me as well because she was associating me with a powerful institution, which was the theater I was working for; I was an outsider. I don't even know if she has any idea of this particular ambition I have of going to L.A. It wasn't so much to disrupt my own ethnicity, because I can't do that; I needed to, for a moment, disrupt the idea of race as a black and white issue, because it isn't anymore. But my background, my emotional connection to race, is one of black and white. And it's very, very hard to re-mediate myself of that—very hard. Because that's how I think, that's how I've been created, that's how I'm made up. And in order to get a better idea of what's going on now, even if it comes back to the same thing—which is, this is a black and white issue, and everybody else is visiting—I don't believe that. But even if it came back to that, I still have to make the trip to begin to see this from another person's point of view. From other people's points of view, to see this geography of race, just positioning myself a little bit differently, less from the heart, if you will, less from automatic response and more patient, more like stepping back, stepping back, stepping back, stepping back. 

And we also have to, in talking about Georganne Williams, be very careful, because here is a woman who is overwhelmed and who is quickly becoming politicized, and she shouldn't be. Who am I? I'm this Stanford professor who's writing a play, and as far as I'm concerned, who am I in her life? What she is dealing with I believe is very, very serious, and it's up to her to decide who she wants to talk to, and if she doesn't want to talk to me, I applaud that, because she has a lot of things going on, and I doubt if she has a staff to orchestrate her days and help her get groceries, clean her house—you know, an assistant or anything. Her sole objective is to protect her son and to be vigilant over this process, and as far as I'm concerned, she can tell all of us to get away. So I want to make sure it doesn't seem as though I'm advocating for this woman to suddenly pay attention to somebody writing a play. 

But in the larger context, a play for an American theater. . .no American theater has ever shown any great evidence that it is particularly interested in African Americans—period. Appendx 2 page break 107 | 108 
KLF: In the context of a performance, were you able to provoke that level of intensity during the question-and-answer period? 

ADS:  Well, not just in questions and answers; what's very interesting about this situation, for example, is that there were different people in the L.A. core community, and I tried getting interviews with many of them, and I wasn't successful. And after the play started, we heard from one of them who said, "You know, I want to come see this play and bring some people, and we want free tickets, and we think you should give us free tickets because we don't think that we've been represented well." And the response was, "Well, you haven't been represented because we couldn't get an interview. Why didn't you talk to us? You wouldn't talk to us." "Well, we don't want to have to picket, so we think you better invite us so we can see this." I was very glad, because suddenly this thing, this play which is on the periphery of their experience, becomes important. And I think it's rare that institutional theaters are important to people at the grass roots—rare, rare, rare. It's usually something that you do because you have forty extra dollars. Not something that you believe could be crucial in your life, or it could be making a mistake; it could be helping you and it could be making a mistake. 

AA: What is their concern? 

ADS:  Well, I think I would be concerned. They were afraid that the L.A. Four [the four men involved in the beating of Reginald Denney] were being misrepresented. He came and he liked the show, this particular man.  And as it turned out, my play was very popular in Los Angeles and it did play to sold-out audiences, and I think it's a good concern that the audience may be getting some information that isn't going to be appropriate in a trial which is very volatile, very important, and very difficult. That something which is part of theater becomes of concern is rare. I mean, I could see if it was a strike or something. next page

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