goto Appendx main menu Media Killers :
An Interview with
Anna Deavere Smith
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ADS:  There's a guy that I interviewed in L.A. who calls himself a "media killer," who took his video camera to the trials, for example, the federal trials of Rodney King, and he put it right up into the faces of the attorneys when they come down from lunch and sit in front of the mike and say this stuff and pontificate. He [the media killer] would just put his thing right up in their face and say, "Why don't you come on and just send your clients to jail instead of wasting everybody's money?" And inevitably these guys, these lawyers, would turn around and say something. And when I interviewed him—Nathaniel is his name—he gave me at great length many of these interactions that he had, and said he also has an awareness. He says, "Look, their first mistake is to turn around and even acknowledge me. That's fronting, Anna. That's called fronting, what I did." And for a person like me, I'm so in love with the spoken word, I'm in love with theater at a time when the media kills the value of words. I'm so happy to meet these media killers, who reclaim the power of the minute. If you can't talk to me in the minute, let's forget it. And that's what Solja is a genius at. She can grab the performance, and that's beautiful. 
Because after the silence I think is always this beautiful speechfulness.
 
KLF:  So in relation to your frame of a "Search for an American Character" [as described in the playbill for the performance at the Agassiz Theater at Harvard University], did you find one at that point in time? The media killer, was that an American character? 

ADS:  Well, my definition of character—and we'd probably have to work to fit it in to that because my definition of character is the place where words fall away. The place where we have to struggle to have words. And the media killer [laughs] is such a lion, he's completely successful at language.  He is trying to get the other person speechless, right, and that's a little bit different from me. I'm not trying to get you speechless, I'm trying to find you in your silence and then speechful. Because after the silence I think is always this beautiful speechfulness. So I'm aAppendx 2 page break 117 | 118 little bit opposite; I would never in fact, I worked out my project in a response to television talk shows, which I watched and watched, and recorded, watching for the moment where the interviewer will try to kill the interviewee, and the interviewee would come back up and get the moment in spite of the kinds of things that Arsenio and everybody else do to kind of "oh!" and "ah!" So, I'm always looking for the moment for the subject to win. 

AA:  That is a very exciting moment when that happens, I must admit. From your perspective, is that what excites you about theater? I know that the interaction of the audience is something that is exciting. What excites you about that space? 

ADS:  Well, to some degree, yes. I went to Greece after I finished "Twilight" in L.A. this past July, and I went to Delphi just to sort of see what that theater was. And I have to say that I thought it would be an amazing space to perform in. I wouldn't want to do it now, but I think when they thought that up, it was genius; it really was what the theater is, and I seldom go to theater which has that feeling of largeness but intimacy at the same time. And I think we could build theaters that are like Delphi, but that doesn't mean that we'll have that. What's interesting to me is the invention, the moment of invention, the moment that they first did it. The moment that someone first figured out this arena for a person or some people to go out and make a breath and have people go, "Oh, right." What didn't happen in "Fires in the Mirror" to the degree that it happens with "Twilight" is that in "Twilight" there were several times in the audience that I could really, really hear people go as a group, "Ahhh!" like that. And the first time they do it, it's with Elvira. When they say the thing about the bullet in the arm!"Ahhh!" That's amazing. I'd rather have that than laughter or anything, because it means to me that people are listening to words, and that on cue they have a feeling about that woman. 

KLF:  What's interesting as well is that there are some cases where people in the audience are picking up on some sort of perception of a stereotype, because they begin to laugh and they catch themselves, thinking that they shouldn't be seen laughing because it's very serious. 

ADS:  That happened with Mrs. Hun. She's at the end, she's a Korean American woman. And in L.A. there were different times where she says the lines; she says,Appendx 2 page break 118 | 119 "Koreans are completely left out of this society. Why? Is it because we don't speak English? Is it because we haven't politicians? Is it because of this?" and then she says, "We don't qualify for this, we don't qualify for that, and many blacks who never work, they get welfare, they get this and this, we don't get anything because we have a car and a house." And some nights you hear, "HA, HA, HA."  People would laugh . . . And it would scare me, because—well, because I know where she has to go, and I know, in the sleazy thing that acting is, I need their sympathy. The reason they're laughing—first I thought it was black people, black folks; you know, the relation of blacks and Koreans in L.A. is so ... 

KLF:  Volatile. 

ADS:  So first I thought that. And one day there was a bunch of kids, who  I'm sure were black kids, who did laugh, and I thought they're laughing at her accent, they're laughing at . . . so when you think of that line, there is a contradiction.  She goes, "We have a car and a house," and at the same time she's saying, "We don't have anything!" But what's missing, and I think some people know this, is that she's saying we have a car and a house right now, but if we don't get some support, we won't have that either. Because what happened was there was nobody, you know, many of them couldn't get any kind of government help, and they're going to lose those cars and those houses, but you do feel the audience turn. I'm sure many people tripped over their own feet, and I don't do that on purpose; I don't even know that's going to happen until I get out there, but frequently there's ...

KLF:  And some people who watched the performance [at the Agassiz Theater at Harvard]—I tried to remain somewhat aware of what people were doing around me—did react and would be looking around as if they had been caught. It's a provocation of sorts where people come forth, as you say, and just as they start to come forth they look around, hoping to remain unseen to shut that down. 

ADS: My desire is that the audience should be so diverse that in fact people will laugh at things the person next to them thinks are horrible. And ... 

AA:  Then you wonder, "Why is that person laughing?" Appendx 2 page break 119 | 120 

ADS:  Right. But I want that to happen, because I want people to experience the length of the differences of our perspectives, and there's so few times that we get to have a room of people engaged in that a lot. In "Fires in the Mirror," the places it would happen . . . at Harvard I did Conrad Mohammed, the Muslim, and then he's followed by a lady talking about the holocaust.  And in New York it would be rare when we did not succeed in diversifying the audience, where there would be very ethnocentric people who would say, "Uh-huh! Yeah! Right! Teach!" But what they're saying "yeah" to is what other people in the audience think of as horribly anti-Semitic stuff, and then at the end of it, occasionally this incredible [loud hand clapping] "Yeah!" when it has just been said that Jews have stolen ours so you know that the Jewish people sitting in the audience must be horrified at this. And 

Did you notice how quickly the word "healing" came into our vocabulary after the uprising?  Three days, and people are talking about healing.
 
then it's followed by the story about the holocaust, which in it's own right is very sad and very moving. And the speaker is quite cautious in the beginning to put it forward, because she says, "Well, you know, I'm uncomfortable putting these things forward"—the same kind of things that Conrad Mohammed has no trouble putting forward, he has no trouble with the idea of evoking images of slavery. And she says, "I have trouble trotting these images out." There's a degree to which there could be some people who say, if you continue to trot the images of slavery out, we will, as she says, become obsessed with our own meaning.  And yet there are other people who say we need more images of slavery; if we become anaesthetized to it, then we need more. And I don't think we say it enough, because our tolerance and our pain level is, "We can't take it." 

AA:  Right. 

ADS:  And you know, I think Conrad Mohammed carries a lot of pain in terms of how much he is willing to have such specific and vivid images of slavery, and that's why I chose to do him, because I didn't carry with me before I met Conrad any image of somebody putting something around somebody's thumb. You know, that particular, and in fact, many of us probably need more specifics, right? 

AA:  Yeah, but it's so hard, it's so difficult to sit through it.  I saw "Roots" when I was twelve. The thing that I carried from that is the chopping off of Kunte Kinte's foot. That is the most painful, and getting whipped. I can't take it, I don't want—I want it but I don't want it. Appendx 2 page break 120 | 121 

ADS:  You want to know.

AA:  But I don't want to feel it. 

KLF:  This relates to some of these notions of "keeping hope alive" and "can't we all just get along." Again, these media images!

ADS:  They're so sad! 

KLF:  It's like these things on my thumb; hearing "keep hope alive" is like my foot getting cut off. next page

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