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An Interview with
Anna Deavere Smith
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ADS:  Well, did you notice how quickly the word "healing" came into our vocabulary after the uprising? Three days, and people are talking about healing. And that too is what I was trying to get at when I was trying to explain why I do this, why I listen to people over and over again, and why  I repeat their words over and over again. When I was working on Reginald Denney's material, I started to get very anxious, and in a way I think that this whole thing that I do is helping me feel a little bit better about coming into consciousness, because I think that the process of coming into consciousness means having available to you this amazing resource of imagery, and much of it is extremely, extremely painful and distasteful, but full consciousness is being able to—at least for a moment—evoke the whole trauma. The problem that we have is we weren't in slavery, so we have to depend on very vivid depictions such as "Roots" or Conrad's speaking to understand why we feel bad. But in a way, I think the better we are at—if we have real specifics, we have more authority over it. 

AA:  People that went through this, some survived and others didn't. But I have a responsibility to their legacy, to make sure that those that have come behind them don't suffer, and I think that it also can be incredibly motivating as well as painful. 

KLF:  It seems that a lot of the motivation comes from those moments that occur in the context of a project, whatever it may be, that becomes a very real and motivating part of the content, because suddenly you're painted as a political hothead, "Oh, you're trying to be political." So you have to develop these underground tactics to get Appendx 2 page break 121 | 122people to play their politics so that they'll at least listen without realizing what they're actually listening to, to internalize it and, of course, when they figure out where the politic is heading, they try to flush it back out. And the driving force—this motivation multiplies and intensifies, and you realize that you have to maintain this mode of operating so that you're not painted as the political hothead as every turn.  So when can I rest? 

ADS:  You can't rest. 

AA:  You know, I'd love to ask you something about Reginald Denney. I couldn't understand at first, why you were laughing, he was laughing, you were laughing— 

ADS:  As him. 

AA:  Yes, as him. And I thought, "Is she making a mistake?" I don't understand, why is he laughing? Why is he smiling when he's saying these horrible things that happened to him. Why? 

ADS:  But that's in life. That's the way people actually write. 

AA:  Right,  and I knew after you'd gone through it, I knew that you weren't making a mistake, that's what he was doing. I think that is part of the beauty of live theater because I have to wonder—you know, it made me uncomfortable. I was sort of moving around in my chair wondering, "What in the world is he thinking?" And I wanted to know what you learned from him. I guess you must learn something from all of these people that you talk to, but him specifically. 

ADS:  Well, it's interesting that you say this, because it's also interesting with Reginald Denney. . . even in performance, during the time that I'm in performance, I'm still sort of listening to the characters, as I drive in my car, when I'm just walking around with the headphones on, and as I listened to his tape, there is an enormous amount of pain. And it's very difficult to . . . with what I do, I can't like act like he's not . . . he didn't act like he was in pain, but over time, if you keep listening to the tape, you begin to hear how much pain there is. On the one hand, you have this man who is behaving mostly like being shocked at his fame, stunned at his Appendx 2 page break 122 | 123 fame. "Oh, I'm just Reggie, just call me Reggie. I didn't do anything to get kicked in the head."  But at the same time, absolutely stunned by the fact that the eyes of the world are on him, and that's something that we can't underestimate. If all of a sudden something happened here that made the three of us in history for no other reason that the fact that we're sitting here talking, we're in history, a part of us would be very surprised and very flattered at the attention. At the same time, he had to have his whole jaw restructured. I asked him about his daughter, Ashley, did she come see him in the hospital, and he said, "Oh, she came once, but she was kind of scared because of all the tubes and everything. She didn't want to see her daddy like that, so she just didn't come. She was kind of scared." She's eight or nine. And after a while, all these realities build up about him, and you realize that there's a discrepancy between his awareness at this point and what has happened. But he himself names that as a lucky lack of discrepancy. 

AA:  I don't know how he watches that. 

ADS:  He says, "Thank God, my best thing, the biggest blessing, was I didn't remember a thing." Or he would be completely thrown off. 

AA:  How do you watch that, how do you watch that? I can't even watch it. 

ADS:  But isn't a bigger sort of remark about us—that I think in many ways  may tell the story of "Roots" and watching Kunte Kinte get his foot cut [off]—is that we live in that type of discrepancy. We watch these things and they were real, and to a certain extent, we're able to fully be in consciousness of their reality. When I was a kid I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and my mother said I couldn't because I was too sensitive. And what she meant by "too sensitive" was, you know, I would see a sad movie and I would cry for three days. And part of my becoming socialized or even becoming what would be considered good mental health is me having to desensitize myself. I couldn't be that way, I couldn't be that way. 

KLF:  What's so powerful about that moment when you're realizing the magnitude of the pain is that he is, too. The grief, his pain, is so tremendous, spans a massive scale that you can't even chart any nodes or points of reference, and he's just starting to get a sense that he's in deep space, he can't even see any stars he's so far out. Appendx 2 page break 123 | 124 

ADS:  And then also it's sort of terrifying even in the story itself, that so much of it is full of "I didn't know," and I was trying to figure it out. I was trying to figure it out, and everybody else knew, everybody else knew, the doctors knew, he didn't know. And nobody was telling him. And I think of all the other problems about Reginald Denney . . . I mean, let's face it, I think it's peculiar how both he and Rodney King in society—they're in history forever—are also these icons of innocence. Rodney King gets up before the world and says, "Can we all get along?" And there's this way that he's kind of shown to us as childlike, beautiful'he's gorgeous, physically gorgeous, not this big threatening thing. 

AA:  Right. 

ADS:  Even if he was big, his face has got these chubby cheeks and this sweet, sweet face. A cherub. And likewise with Reginald Denney. And yet, they are our icons now for this year of outrageously horrible things that happened. And so I think that's kind of curious that there's this split between their innocence and the guilts of society. 

AA:  Do you think that as we feel more guilty about what is happening and the conflicts, and maybe the hopelessness of this situation, that they become more innocent as time goes on? 

ADS:  I think that's really interesting. You could be exactly right. This whole thing, something gets acted out. But even the way—I don't want to get off the cuff, but I mean I wish I was a sociologist or something, because I  would love to understand over time just what's happening with the children right now, the way the children keep popping up as either victims or demons. And our kind of fascination with that. And it means to me there is once again a discrepancy, there is something out of balance, that adults are unable to keep whatever is the child in them alive and the demon in them alive, our generation, and the generation before it, and so it's like sending the garbage out, and it's acted out in these children. But it's really us, we're doing it, it's our problem. And it's our innocence that we can't own, that it gets shoved onto just a few people. next page 

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