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Anna Deavere Smith discusses her career

BROADCAST: May. 4, 1995 | DURATION: 00:52:28


Anna Deavere Smith discusses and demonstrates her unique character portrayals from her works "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Anna Deavere Smith "Do you know what happened in August here? I wish I could go on television, I want to scream to the whole world. They said that the Blacks came to riot here with the Jews in Crown Heights. Do you know that the Blacks who came to riot here were not my neighbors? I don't know my neighbors. There is a lady on President Street, Clare. I adore her. She's my girlfriend's next door neighbor. I've had a manicure done at her house. We sit and kibitz and stuff. But we don't, I don't know them. I told you."

Studs Terkel Familiar voice that, those thoughts are. And that references to a very traumatic and dramatic event--the confrontation of African-Americans in Crown Heights in Brooklyn with Hasidic Jews. You remember that? And that caused, of course, and still the repercussions of it here, [and the strong?]. The voice you hear is that of someone who may be the most remarkable theatrical being at this very moment: Anna Deavere Smith. And you may have seen her on public television doing these voices. This was "Fires in the Mirror," that confrontation we referred to. She does these Jewish voices, the African-American voices, West Indian voices, of people involved. And on TV we saw her do the aftermath of the Rodney King, the first verdict, when the stuff broke out, the trouble broke out on the streets. And she does all these characters--Reginald Denny, and Daryl Gates, and of the aunt of Rodney King. Anna Deavere Smith, how will we describe your--they speak of you as, I'm thinking of Jack Kroll, the drama critic of "Newsweek," the "Times," the other critics. Audiences speak of you being a mesmerizing--you capture all the aspects of our day. So, how did this come about? Oh, first of all, a vital statistic--you'll be here at the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute May 12th, seven. And you'll be doing something else including these [voices?].

Anna Deavere Smith Well, I'll be doing parts of "Fires in the Mirror," parts of "Twilight," and then a few other pieces that came from, you know, other works that I've done over time.

Studs Terkel We have to describe what you do. A moment before we went on the air I was talking of Ruth Draper and her genius but hers was of a certain class; even though she'd [unintelligible]. You cover the country and events that are hardly touched upon. Someone said you cover--your impression is of the soul of it, the inside of it. Not the [patinous?] stuff that we usually get. How does this come about?

Anna Deavere Smith Well, you were a part of how it came about. You know, I've been saying all the way here, in the cab, and up the steps, up the elevator, that I feel like I've come to see the master. This is a really big moment for me because--

Studs Terkel Keep going.

Anna Deavere Smith The first time I ever thought of real language being dramatic was from your book "Working." And then your book "American Dreams." So, for me, if it hadn't been for you, probably the wheels couldn't have started to turn in my head. And then it took a while for me to come up with my form. But you were, absolutely, one of the first things that pricked my imagination, that I might be able to find something interesting in the way that the layman--that is to say, not an actor, not a playwright--but the way that a common American being might have something to say to me that would be dramatic.

Studs Terkel So it's the voice of the anonymous person, the non-celebrated person?

Anna Deavere Smith Yes.

Studs Terkel Involved with some event of our times.

Anna Deavere Smith That's right.

Studs Terkel So, a certain moment in that person's life--

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel That you capture. And the impressions--is it 27 people, 28 people? Whether it be the Crown Heights trouble or the Los Angeles streets of '92. What--now we go about how you work. See, you got the idea from--well, might I just add--I'm delighted that, of course, and very moved by what you said, except that I know--you don't mind my saying--you'd have done it anyway. Because--

Anna Deavere Smith I don't know about that because I think you gave--at the time that I learned about you, you really were giving credibility to the voice of this anonymous person as a part of American character, as a part of American identity. And also that "Working" actually went to the stage. You know, it went ultimately, you know, to Broadway.

Studs Terkel But let's do--as the boy says to the girl, let's talk about you. All right? Now, what is it you do? These characters jump, and I need not read the quotes from the various critics and others, they're just mesmerized--you're up for every award in the world. You would have won several except, see, you're using other people's words. Something I've heard for the past 30 years.

Anna Deavere Smith Haha.

Studs Terkel Answer that.

Anna Deavere Smith I don't know how to. You know, I'm not a scholar of my own work. I can't really put that together because I can't be objective. You know what I mean? It's coming from the heart, it's coming from an intuitive place. I just know that it's something I have to do. And I suppose, I can't--you know, as much as awards are very important--and, nowadays, they have a real economic reality. I mean, they can close a show. Obviously, we see the Tony Awards--if you don't get one the show closes, all this stuff. So I don't want to seem naive. But the charge that I gave myself, you know, way back in the 70s, you know, was to discover the relationship between language and character in America at a time when women's roles in society were changing. And when people of color were having a greater voice. So, in a way, that's a charge which is bigger than, you know, awards or anything. You know what I'm saying?

Studs Terkel So, it's a question of language, the word. But also there's something called body language. I guess in old acting classes it's called the psychological gesture.

Anna Deavere Smith Right, right. Well, we were talking about Bill Ball before we started, who was a great director, and impresario, and so forth. But he was also a genius in terms of the study of acting. And when I studied with him, he taught us something called--

Studs Terkel At the American Conserv-- In San Francisco?

Anna Deavere Smith

Studs Terkel In San Francisco?

Anna Deavere Smith At the American Conservatory Theatre. In San Francisco. He taught us something called heroics, in which we took the Shakespeare and--it wasn't just the words themselves, but it was how your body was with the words, how your voice was with the words. And you would have, sort of, your voice teacher, and your movement teacher, and your text teacher, pulling at you--sort of this great triangle pulling in every direction. And that made me understand that the word, the word as it is uttered, becomes the center of performance.

Studs Terkel As you say that, you, when you did "Fires in the Mirror," which I hope we can see here sometime, and maybe you'll do excerpts from that during your performance at Rubloff.

Anna Deavere Smith I will. I will be.

Studs Terkel That you, at the very beginning you had the voice of Ros Malamud, [or someone like?].

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel She was Jewish, and she was telling about the troubles, and you caught a certain flavor. But also, you said--Shakespeare would have loved the father of the boy who has hit by the cop--Cato.

Anna Deavere Smith Oh, he would have loved him.

Studs Terkel A Jamaican.

Anna Deavere Smith That's right. A Guyanan.

Studs Terkel Now describe that and, perhaps, if we can do--

Anna Deavere Smith OK. Very interesting, couple of things. One--when I first started doing my own interviews, I asked a linguist how I could get people to do things which would be--that if I repeated them it would seem like them. In other words, to do unique things. She said there's three questions that I'll give you to ask. It will guarantee that people will do unique things as they speak. One is, have you ever come close to death? The other is, have you been accused of something that you did not do? And the third is, do you remember the circumstances of your birth? And when I went to interview Mr. Cato--

Studs Terkel Who was the father--

Anna Deavere Smith Who was the father of the boy who was killed, of Gavin Cato.

Studs Terkel By a guy driving a car.

Anna Deavere Smith Yes. There was a man in the entourage of the Grand Rebbe. His car ran a red light. It hit this young boy, 7-year old boy, killed him, and injured his cousin. The riots broke out and as a result of that killing, some feel, in a retaliatory way a group of roving young Black men stabbed a scholar, a Talmudic scholar, who was here from Australia. And this is what led to the four days of outrage. And, so, when I went to talk to Mr. Cato--

Studs Terkel The father of the boy hit by the car.

Anna Deavere Smith The father of the boy. He started to talk in a language that I'd only really seen in Shakespeare. No other dramatist had done this. For example, he said--he's describing being out there on the scene--"I saw everything. Everything," right? He saw everything. Then he says, "And I was the father. And I was--it shocked--and pushed--and many sarcastic words were passed towards me from the police as I was trying to explain. It's my kid. These are my children. The child was hit. You know?" So there, he's been accused of something--wait, wait--there he's been accused of something that he did not do. The next question, have you ever come close--I didn't ask these questions, by the way. They were just, like years ago, when I was reading you I knew those questions--didn't ask Mr. Cato that. By nature he's answering them. Have you ever come close to death? "It was exactly 8:30. Why? Because there was a little child. A friend of mine brought by a little child and I lift the child up, and she look at her watch, and she say, 'It 8:30.' And then it happened. Mmm. Mmm! My child." He came close to death. He saw the death of his child. And then, out of the blue, we're talking and he tells me that the Hasidim were telling him that he had to say certain things, and he couldn't say other things. And he said to me, "I'm not going to do anything I don't want to do. I'm not going to say anything I want to say. I am a special person. I am a man born by my foot. I born by the foot. They say when a baby come in by the foot, either they cut the mother or the baby die. But I born by my foot. I am one of the special. They cannot overpower me." Right? So, that's the circumstances of his birth. Well, when I heard that, I mean, I hadn't thought about those questions in years. I just thought, oh, God, or the muse has brought me here to meet this man who says everything.

Studs Terkel You see, seeing you, seeing Anna Deavere Smith do this, as well as hearing her, and watching--you become him. Not--you almost become a medium. You know the idea of medium? In other words, you become his voice, his being, as you do it. Now, how do--this is the magic, of course, of you--this is the magic of theater at its best. You know, the foot, of course the foot came first.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Which made him special--almost like a seventh son of a seventh, etcetera. A Hoochie-Coochie Man. In a way.

Anna Deavere Smith He is a Hoochie-Coochie Man. He thinks that. He said, he says, "I have certain feelings." Right. And to this day, I saw him in August, he really believes that he has the ability to know. He knew. He said he knew before his son died, that something was happening.

Studs Terkel And now we have to ask--we'll take our first break--as you see, the drama builds here--we've got to ask Anna Deavere Smith how--she, they caught him, seeing him, the nature of the interviews, the tape recorder; how she gets it and works until that time she appears on the stage. So, we're talking to a remarkable artist, let's face it. You're very unique. There are many impressionists and this is not it. There are many impersonators, this certainly is not it--her, he, she. No, this is something entirely different. This is capturing a heart of something. And the themes you choose, of course, are the unspoken themes or they make headlines in a superficial way, and editorials in a superficial way. You're capturing what it is that keeps us apart. And, yet, there's a commonality that comes in that is absolutely stunning. And we've got to, again, mention that performance; May 8th, did we say? May 8th at 7--

Anna Deavere Smith May 12th.

Studs Terkel May 12th. May 12th. May 8th is V-E Day [unintelligible].

Anna Deavere Smith Ahh.

Studs Terkel May 12th at Rubloff Auditorium, which is a nice hall at the Art Institute, and you'll be at work, and it's going to be an indelible experience, I know, for people there in the audience. And, so, we'll take our first break. And, so, resuming for the second lap with Anna Deavere Smith. When last we left, as we say in soap operas. "When last we left, Cynthia said to Bruce, or Jason. Or Jennifer said to"--what's another good name? Todd.

Anna Deavere Smith Todd's good.

Studs Terkel And, so, when you did this West Indian guy, the father of the kid who was killed. Earlier you did Rosalyn Malamud.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel And how you do it. You hear the event--Los Angeles, or Crown--Brooklyn Heights.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Crown. You go visit these people?

Anna Deavere Smith Right. I go visit these people with a tape recorder and I talk to them for an hour. I usually start by saying, "I would like to talk to you about what happened here from your point of view. Do you think there's something that was not expressed in the newspapers that you'd like to tell me about?" We talk for an hour. Then I go home. And after I've collected all my interviews, in the case of Crown Heights, 50, in the case of Los Angeles, 220. And I sit down with my headphones on and I start with the piece of an interview that made the biggest physical impression from me--on me. Right? So, like with Mr. Cato, it might be something like, "The child was hit. You know? Mmm. Mmm!" Because it's this, doing this, doing this non-verbal, part-verbal event that sticks with me. And then I take something my grandfather told me when I was a little girl: he told me that if you say a word often enough it becomes you. And, so, I have a very, very simple technique, which is I just repeat what they said, as they said it, over and over until it becomes me.

Studs Terkel Yeah. So this could be, as in Los Angeles, could be a Korean?

Anna Deavere Smith Could be anybody.

Studs Terkel Or a Hispanic guy or woman.

Anna Deavere Smith Right

Studs Terkel Man, woman--

Anna Deavere Smith Child. I haven't done many children.

Studs Terkel Child. But it could be, also, Daryl Gates.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel The ex-police chief.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Once upon a time a hero of law and order, quote unquote.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel And then exposed. It could be, or it could be the aunt of Rodney King.

Anna Deavere Smith Right. That's right.

Studs Terkel Who is quite a character.

Anna Deavere Smith Right, right.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]. So you hear it, and you do it, and it becomes yours.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel But it's more. It's not just imitating these--

Anna Deavere Smith No, no.

Studs Terkel It becomes something entirely different.

Anna Deavere Smith Well, it's that--how can I say--for example, I don't videotape, you know. And, yet, gestural behavior does come about. And that has to do with this amazing power that words have on our whole body, and our whole psyche, you know. And, so, it's why so much of the world happens on a word, when you think of it. Or so much of our lives happens as a result of someone saying, I love you, or you're fired, or a multitude of expletives, or some of the things that people have said. Jesse Jackson said some things years ago that are very difficult for him to live down. Jesse Helms said some things, around November, about the president. We take people at their word. And these words, the power of words. You know, there's a social power but there's also a simple, psycho-linguistic power. And, so, like a song, you know, like singing a song. If I sang some old hymn, you know, the way they sing it in a Black church. It doesn't matter what the words are; I could sing the same words over and over again. But if I have a certain feeling inside, I express that feeling.

Studs Terkel You know, you just hit something--like a song. You, it occurs to me, what you do is a song. That is, prose--well, you know, the great Black preacher, when he starts talking prose, we know it becomes a song. When Martin Luther King said, "I have SEEN!" And the word seen comes up. "I have BEEN to the mountain top." And you, and, so, "How long? Not long! How long will justice," and, so, it becomes a song.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]. And, so--

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel That is what we're talking about.

Anna Deavere Smith And the people can repeat it. And I'm so glad you brought up a positive example, because I gave two that were controversial examples. Or everybody talks about Barbara Jordan in the, Watergate, you know, "We are inquisitors." Or FDR--I used to use his fireside chats in class where I'd have my students dance to it, you know. Just dance to it.

Studs Terkel By the way, you teach at Stanford.

Anna Deavere Smith I teach at Stanford.

Studs Terkel And you teach drama there.

Anna Deavere Smith Teach drama, yeah.

Studs Terkel Go ahead. So you, your students danced to it.

Anna Deavere Smith Well, here, because it struck me that FDR, you know, that his fireside chats, they were like--they had a waltz rhythm. Right?

Studs Terkel A waltz, you say?

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. He would talk about making democracy safe all, over, the world.

Studs Terkel That's--"I see"--

Anna Deavere Smith Da, da-da-da-da. So you would have no choice but to--

Studs Terkel So it's a waltz: "I see one third of a nation, ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed." And, so, it's a waltz.

Anna Deavere Smith And this, people can follow, even if they don't get the full meaning.

Studs Terkel So there's a music.

Anna Deavere Smith There's a music.

Studs Terkel And, so, in the midst of all the trauma, and the violence, there's a lyricism here.

Anna Deavere Smith Right. Right.

Studs Terkel That becomes. So you work your way. That's what [they?] mean by getting at the soul of it. And you speak also--by the way, we'll talk about you capturing a country at critical moments. There are the African-Americans, there are the Jews, there are the Koreans, and--especially in Los Angeles--there are the Hispanic people. There are the law and order--others--I call them the others, by the way. Because the majority, I think, is a combination of all these minorities. But, in any event, there's always, but you speak of a common, strange commonal--what's that about [unintelligible]--

Anna Deavere Smith Oh, that's the--

Studs Terkel Not this melting pot.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, no.

Studs Terkel Forget that. You hate the metaphor.

Anna Deavere Smith No, no.

Studs Terkel Even salad bowl isn't good. Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith It's so boring. You know, you're talking about Reginald Denny. Reginald Denny--

Studs Terkel Yeah. Talk of Reginald Denny.

Anna Deavere Smith Reginald Denny was the man, as people may recall, a White truck driver who was attacked. People see that as the beginning, almost--not the beginning of the riot, but the landmark moment--this vision of a man being dragged out of his truck, and beaten, and stomped almost to death. And I went to meet Mr. Denny. And, you know, he had a difficult time expressing himself. But he said something to me that was very powerful, which is he talked about, he speaks, he [grabs?] for humanity, and all this. And, in fact, during the trial he was known for going over to the mother of one of the boys who beat him up and embracing her, and so forth. And he talked about how there was this weird, common thread in our lives. And I thought that that weird, common thread between us in the races isn't really, necessarily, even a positive thing. I think what it is, is that we do have this unfortunate tradition of slavery. That the weird, common thread is how we have a relationship to that. And maybe the thing that could bring us together is our ability to remember it, recall it, rather than to deny it.

Studs Terkel As you were drawling it out, is that the way he spoke, too?

Anna Deavere Smith This weird--he had a very peculiar way--this weird, common thread in our lives.

Studs Terkel So you capture that way. What about the woman who's the aunt of Rodney King?

Anna Deavere Smith Oh, she was great. I--she and I became great friends. She was a lot like a Black Miss Kitty, right?

Studs Terkel Miss Kitty?

Anna Deavere Smith Miss Kitty--remember Miss Kitty in "Gunsmoke"?

Studs Terkel Oh, I get it.

Anna Deavere Smith She was kind of like that.

Studs Terkel Kind of raffish-like and--

Anna Deavere Smith And--

Studs Terkel Heart of gold-like.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, heart of gold. And she, in the middle of the interview, she broke down crying, and my assistant and I just sat there quiet for about, oh, close to four minutes while she wept. And then she looked at us and we looked so pitiful that she kind of, I think, took sorrow for us and was then worried that we, that we'd be all right. She's that kind of person. As tough as her life is.

Studs Terkel So how would she talk? [unintelligible]

Anna Deavere Smith "You know my family? What it reminds me of? 'Carmen'! Ever see that movie with Harry Belafonte?" I mean, she had peculiar sort of metaphors for her own life. "Carmen," the movie with Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge

Studs Terkel So you become these--it's not a switching back and forth it's, I guess the word is flow. Just earlier we spoke of music, and song, and lyricism. There's a flow. And the words are harsh words and suddenly, astonishingly eloquent, out of nowhere, by people whom you never heard of. Suddenly, as you say, Shakespeare would have loved--

Anna Deavere Smith He would have loved them.

Studs Terkel The guy says, my foot came--well, of course, he's talking about MacDuff, too, born out of a Cesarean. Anyway, [unintelligible]--

Anna Deavere Smith And also, Shakespeare, you know, the beautiful--you know, one of the many, many beautiful things about Shakespeare--it was he was interested in all kinds of people. You know what I mean? And when you talked about Ruth Draper, I think the only thing--when you said she was, you said she's performed for one social class, maybe?

Studs Terkel Well--

Anna Deavere Smith That's her time. I'm sure that--

Studs Terkel Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith Limited her. Her time. If she were living now--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith It would be--

Studs Terkel Broader.

Anna Deavere Smith Much broader. Because she would have greater access.

Studs Terkel That's right. Yeah. Oh, yeah. When she--

Anna Deavere Smith And I'm living in a moment where I'm fortunate enough--if I had been brought up if, if I had been--grown up in the 30s, I couldn't do what I do. I wouldn't have access to Daryl Gates--he wouldn't talk to me. You know? I wouldn't have access.

Studs Terkel Yeah. That's right. So you met Daryl--by the way, we have to talk about this--the people you've met. We're talking to Anna Deavere Smith, who is a unique figure. By the way, she writes, just to make it clear--these words become her words, so they're the words, originally, of someone else. I think every word is the word, originally, of someone else to begin with. We have to go back to Genesis, and pre-Genesis if you're not Christian or Jewish. Go back to something. Whose words were they to begin with?

Anna Deavere Smith That's so interesting.

Studs Terkel And what you do with the words--Shakespeare, they say, called upon the "Chronicles" when he did his, certainly, the historical plays. And, so, what is done with the word, and the idea that comes forth, and the image that comes forth, is theater, in this sense, in its best sense. And I think what--this is Jack Kroll, of "Newsweek," "I'm interested in different,"--no, the part of him looking for is, here it is: "The most exciting individual in American theater right now is Anna Deavere Smith." And he goes on to talk about her works of theater that she does. And it's at the Rubloff, she's here in Chicago. And you've never performed here before? Did you?

Anna Deavere Smith No. Well, I did a reading in a university--

Studs Terkel You did?

Anna Deavere Smith But I haven't had a chance to perform.

Studs Terkel So this will be at the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute, May 12th. And I'll ask about that as we go along. There's something else you have in mind, too--"Conversations"?

Anna Deavere Smith Well, it's called--I'm calling it "Conversational Placement."

Studs Terkel Let's ask about that.

Anna Deavere Smith Just for you.

Studs Terkel Just for me?

Anna Deavere Smith No, just for, actually, for the Art Institute.

Studs Terkel We'll come back in a moment after this message. So we resume for the third lap with someone I've been wanting to meet ever since I saw her on that public TV show in which I just was knocked out completely. She was doing these voices, and these beings of Los Angeles, called "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992." And before that she did "Fires in the Mirror" about Crown Heights. But you choose, also, events that are cataclysmic--in which ordinary people are involved and do extraordinary things, both horrendous and magnificent.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. But not always cataclysmic events. My last one was done for the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. I collaborated with Judith Jamison. And they put me in a room, I interviewed all the dancers, and then they danced, themselves, to my speaking their words. And there was no real event other than the opportunity to commemorate Mr. Ailey at the 35th anniversary of the company. And that's not about a tragedy. The only tragedy there is that Mr. Ailey is no longer with us. But the piece is really about beauty, and extraordinary people, and so forth.

Studs Terkel What are "Conversational Placements"?

Anna Deavere Smith "Conversational Placements" are simply excerpts from my work. I've thought of calling the evening "Conversational Placements" because the exhibit that Madeleine Grynsztejn has curated at the Art Institute is called "About place." So--

Studs Terkel Oh, wait, oh, this is done in conjunction--

Anna Deavere Smith She has asked me to come--

Studs Terkel With a exhibition--

Anna Deavere Smith Right. At the Art Institute.

Studs Terkel Of place?

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel American place, or?

Anna Deavere Smith "About place."

Studs Terkel About place, itself.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, is the title of the exhibition. And, so, she had invited me because the way she saw my work is that it does start from a place, you know, that it--that place is a part of every title, for example. That where something occurs is really important to me. And that's true, you know. So, for example, the third section of my show, which is not from "Fires in the Mirror" or from "Twilight," simply presents characters and tells you where they're from. And I speak, you know, about--I use something about them that is, that is specific to where they come from.

Studs Terkel Like what?

Anna Deavere Smith Like Charlayne Hunter-Gault is one of the people in that section, who integrated the University of Georgia.

Studs Terkel [Perhaps you don't?] know this--[or have?] forgotten, I should say. People do, but it's been erased from history. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who was magnificent. And, by the way, if I could say it, having a rough time at PBS, you know. Remember that program which Peggy--god, I've blocked her name out--Peggy Noonan.

Anna Deavere Smith Huh.

Studs Terkel You know who--

Anna Deavere Smith Peggy Noonan was a speechwriter.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Who wrote the speeches for Bush and Reagan, had this incredibly shallow program. I mean credibly--it felt rather insulting to the intelligence of viewers. She was chosen rather than Charlayne Hunter-Gault. And, so, this is my--this is my side sermon for the moment. So, anyway, Charlayne Hunter-Gault is one of the young heroines--

Anna Deavere Smith Of the Civil Rights Movement.

Studs Terkel She was the one who walked the gauntlet.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel Who walked as hooting, howling--this is where in, now?

Anna Deavere Smith The University of Georgia,

Studs Terkel In Georgia.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel So, what--

Anna Deavere Smith She segre--she integrated the University of Georgia and she's actually one of the first people I ever interviewed way back in the early 80s. And in her story, which for me is a, you know, having that story is a crucial part of my work, she just talks about being at the University of Georgia and riots that broke out because she was there and, you know, what it took for her to be there.

Studs Terkel You have her?

Anna Deavere Smith You want to hear some of that?

Studs Terkel Yeah. [Have a cadence?]?

Anna Deavere Smith Mm-hmm. I'll--oh, just a part of it.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith I'll do the end which is the best part. Oh, here--this is typical of her: "The riot was the first night. The second night was, in the total scheme of things, pretty uneventful. I mean there was chanting and so forth going on, but they sounded more like kids at a pep rally than they sounded, [like?], hostile. And my room was a room that had been a room for the student government. It was on the first floor and all of the other young women in the dormitory lived on the floors above me. So even as they had been ordered to desegregate they were still doing everything in their power to keep me segregated."

Studs Terkel This is great. See, what you do--by the way, it also is funny, we should point out--there's a, the humor underneath. There's a wit, of course, but it's just--you caught her very well! So, you catch the idiomatic, the idiosyncratic quality of people, too. Is that--what makes that, makes her unique is, not only her very being, and her gallantry, but the way of speech--it's hers.

Anna Deavere Smith And that way of speech, you know, comes from her struggle, too. As well as the fact that she's very smart, and all those other things.

Studs Terkel You don't judge. Coming back, again, to "Fires in the Mirror," the Crown Heights problems, Hasidic Jews, and the African-Americans, and the West Indians. And the Los Angeles aftermath of the first Rodney King verdict and what broke out on the streets. You don't judge.

Anna Deavere Smith No. Well, I think my love of language and my understanding, which I told you about, that simple idea that if you say a word often enough it becomes you, comes from my grandfather. On the other side I had a mother who couldn't judge if she, you know, she was an elementary school principal--

Studs Terkel This is Baltimore?

Anna Deavere Smith In Baltimore. Elementary school principal, and her theory of life was there's always two sides. You know? And, so, she would come home with many stories about breaking up fights on the playground and that everybody knew they could come to Miss Smith's office and she would hear both sides of the story. So it's just by nature that I picked that up. I didn't know there was any other way. It could cause you trouble in life because the older you get, and particularly me coming through, you know, right after the Civil Rights Movement, you know, into the Black Power Movement, and the Feminist Movement, you have to have a side. You don't have a side, people don't think you know who you are.

Studs Terkel By the way, this matter of neutrality is a fraud to begin with. You know, when a journalist--I had a friend, a great British journalist named James Cameron, and he was--everybody knew him: Ho Chi Minh knew him, and Castro knew him. He exposed Schweitzer as not that great guy he was when he went to Lambaréne. Close friend of Nehru. James Cameron was the greatest roving correspondent Britain ever had. But James Cameron helped organize Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and he marched in that parade with Bertrand Russell and Canon Collins. And then some of the journalists of the right were saying how dare he, a journalist, take sides. He said, who ever spoke of objective? What does it mean, by objective journalism? You try to cover something as fairly as you can. Not judging the event. But of course you have. You're not neutral, nobody is neutral. Unless you're a digital something on a computer.

Anna Deavere Smith Mm-hmm.

Studs Terkel And even then you're fed something. Of course, not. Of course. Anyone who says he is objective is fraudulent about it. You have to try to be as fair as you possibly can. Well, of course, there's that. But I mean you don't judge the individual.

Anna Deavere Smith No.

Studs Terkel See, you get that person. Daryl Gates--how do you, how--how did he react to you?

Anna Deavere Smith I don't--he never saw it.

Studs Terkel Oh, he never saw it? No, how did he react to you when you visited him?

Anna Deavere Smith It was peculiar. His people did everything in the world to keep me from him. You know, like they said, "Look, he only has five minutes with you." But for some reason he insisted on seeing me again. And then that time they said, "Well, he only has 10 minutes with you." Then we sat outside, he talked to me for an hour. I don't know why. I really don't know why.

Studs Terkel Now we have to, see, you've hit something very interesting. Why did Daryl Gates want to see you again? And spend all that time when all his flunkies were saying five minutes?

Anna Deavere Smith I don't know. You could probably tell me, I just don't know.

Studs Terkel I think it has a lot to do with you [unintelligible]. He sensed that he's going to get a fair shake. See?

Anna Deavere Smith You think so?

Studs Terkel Well, of course. You see, he sensed there's something about you. And we come to your approach, now, to life and art. And, of course, you can't--who separates the two anyway?

Anna Deavere Smith Mm-hmm.

Studs Terkel You know. And I, of course he did, he sees he'll get a fair shake. Knowing full well that you are not on his side. Definitely, to put it mildly, not. But you'll get a--so we come to you and trying to capture the people in it, of both sides. You speak of community here, somewhere; that is, coming back to the old, silly metaphors of melting pot. It never was, never made any sense. And the salad bowl--a little better--your salad bowl: fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, all different. But it's still not it--you speak of a community.

Anna Deavere Smith Mm-hmm.

Studs Terkel That is unique, at the same time with enough rope to allow you to wander around [and about?].

Anna Deavere Smith Well, that's not my idea. That's, Angela Davis gives us that idea, in "Fires in the Mirror." The idea that, at the same time that we might have an identity with one community, what might help us is a rope that--that starts by her saying that she feels that we can't be anchored just in our own communities. And she justifies that by saying, I'm not saying that we shouldn't feel anchored in our own communities--I feel very anchored in my own various communities--but then she goes on to say, I think that the rope attached to that anchor should be long enough to allow us to move into other communities to understand and learn. And, in a way, that's an idea which is gaining more and more popularity, I'm finding, particularly among academics. I don't know about activists, as well, but I would imagine, maybe, among activists--this idea that we can have our cake and eat it, too. That we can belong someplace. And at the same time, travel somewhere else.

Studs Terkel Now this is a pluralism in the best sense. You're talking about pluralism, and I am unique, my culture is unique. At the same time, of course, it's related to the other. I mean, I suppose you might say it's not quite, it's not separatism.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel It doesn't quite work--well, my own point of view is that you can [be separate?] all you want, it's not going to work. See? It's not going to work.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel That's what I'm trying--that's what it is about, too.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel It's not going to work because it isn't, it isn't right. It's just not going to work [unintelligible].

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel Whereas, what you--by the way, we come to the power of theater now--we haven't talked about that. When you do this, do you have an intimations of people who have been influenced, affected by what you do? Who say, "Wow, I never thought of that till, till--"

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, a lot of people say those kind of things. Well,

Studs Terkel

Anna Deavere Smith Hit that. Hit that. Well, I mean, that's tough because a lot of people come up to me, particularly after the show, and tell me that. But I guess for me to give an honest answer, I would have to be able to say, well, this person did this as a result of seeing my work, or of knowing me, and I don't, I don't know that yet. I just don't know.

Studs Terkel But they do come back and say--see, this is one of the--

Anna Deavere Smith Or they stay and talk, you know.

Studs Terkel They what?

Anna Deavere Smith They stay and talk.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith And that's a real important thing to me--is I don't think I have the answer, I'm just trying to have a conversation.

Studs Terkel See, I know this is so in you and--I just know it. Of course, I wanted to talk to you, I'm sure, as a theatergoer, or just going to hear or see someone. I think they--you touch something. It's not just your own virtuosity--I hate to use that word--but you are a virtuoso in, again, in a very good sense. But they see something that they hadn't seen before. Once in a while I'll run into someone who says he never says--he's reading "Working," let's say--I'll never talk that way, I never think that way about a waitress. Remember that "Five Easy Pieces"?

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel Well, I loathed a certain part of that movie. I despised it. And the kids loved it. Maybe it's me. There was a waitress scene--she's the virago.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel She's a set up, and she's middle-aged and Jack Nicholson is going to have a toast, something, she says I can't, it's not on the order. And he gets angry, throws the stuff, and the kids in the audience stood up and cheered, and I say, you spoiled little bastards. I was saying to them. [unintelligible]

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Who is this waitress? Do you know her?

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Has she got varicose veins? Why is she a waitress?

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel She is certainly--is her daughter in trouble, on dope? Is the kid in trouble? Husband sick? She have a fight with the chef behind those sliding doors? How many Bufferins did she take?

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Who is she? Nothing. They just didn't--so, you know, what came out was "that lousy waitress."

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel You see? So, in a way, when this guy said to me, I'll never talk to a waitress that way again, or to a truck driver. That's a great kind of feeling of acceleration.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel So that what you get?

Anna Deavere Smith Right. Yes, I do. Yeah, yeah. Or just to see people moved, you know. People who can't talk, you know?

Studs Terkel [And that's it?].

Anna Deavere Smith You know, they're just moved.

Studs Terkel See, you make--

Anna Deavere Smith You know, they come up to you.

Studs Terkel So the inarticulate--

Anna Deavere Smith It's beautiful.

Studs Terkel Become articulate.

Anna Deavere Smith I'm very interested in what is not said. Harold Pinter said that speech is a strategy to cover nakedness.

Studs Terkel Oh, he said that, yeah. And, of course, when he has those suspenseful moments--

Anna Deavere Smith Silences and pauses.

Studs Terkel The silence. So now you work with silence as well.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. Silence is against speech, right? A lot of times people become quiet when they've realized something about themselves. That's the most important moment for me. I'll go back and listen to the silence and take the moment before and figure if I say that moment over, and over again, that's going to tell me something about that person.

Studs Terkel Yeah. And also the person. You know, Daryl Gates didn't see it, but others did see it.

Anna Deavere Smith Many people saw it.

Studs Terkel Like Letty Pogrebin.

Anna Deavere Smith Oh, yeah.

Studs Terkel Who was also involved with the, as an observer writer, and at "Ms." But also devoutly Jewish.

Anna Deavere Smith Devoutly Jewish, but she's also held a group of Black women and Jewish women together for several years.

Studs Terkel And now what did she say when she--

Anna Deavere Smith She was--

Studs Terkel You did her.

Anna Deavere Smith I did her.

Studs Terkel How did she go?

Anna Deavere Smith She, she had refu--wouldn't meet me in person when I interviewed her. I only talked to her on the phone and each time very briefly. And so she came to see the show with her husband who's an attorney. She was very moved. She was waiting for me in the lobby, you know, sitting there with her glasses and he's there, just waiting. And she started by saying, "Where have you been?" Right? So I knew it was okay. Then she said, "The only thing, I'm really sorry that I didn't meet with you because I think you would have gotten my accent better. I don't have a Brooklyn accent. I know I speak in a very peculiar manner but I don't have a Brooklyn." So this, frequently, I think, a complicated relationship to what I do. On the one hand, did I do them right? Did I get the picture right? And on the other hand, what I love is when people are actually able to see through that very personal feeling to understand what they mean in the bigger picture, and the value that they have to us in the bigger picture.

Studs Terkel See, I'll bet--now, perhaps no one has said it to you yet--whom you portrayed, whom you became, some of them said, "I never knew I felt that way before."

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Did--has anyone said?

Anna Deavere Smith They say that. Or they say--

Studs Terkel They did say that?

Anna Deavere Smith Or they say, "I don't remember saying that."

Studs Terkel Yeah. Do you see? See, what you just said is a common experience for both of us. I'll never forget one of the earliest things with "Division Street: America." It was in a housing project. Now I can't tell now whether she was White or Black. She was poor because there'd been a good number, about six kids, a youngish mother, about five, six kids. And, naturally, it was new then, the tape recorder, and so she never spoke to a tape recorder. And the kids want to hear it. So they want to hear their mother's voice, and they want to talk into it, and they jump around, and they're laughing as I play it back. And then she comes on, and she's listening, and suddenly she says, "Oh, my god!" What? "I never knew I felt that way before."

Anna Deavere Smith Oh!

Studs Terkel Well, that's a stunning moment! For her, but also for me.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel It's a fantastic moment.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Well, that's the kind of stuff you get, see?

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel "I never knew I felt that." So, it's the audience seeing it, the general audience: wow. But the person portrayed suddenly--

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel So you--this is not, to make it quite clear, that Anna Deavere Smith does not impersonate--

Anna Deavere Smith Thank you for doing that.

Studs Terkel That she becomes--as someone said, one of the critics said, you get into the soul of it.

Anna Deavere Smith Well, that's a very nice thing that David Richards said about me, but it is [true?]--

Studs Terkel Oh, that was Frank Rich.

Anna Deavere Smith Actually, it was David Richards. David Richards.

Studs Terkel Oh, Richards?

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah, yeah.

Studs Terkel Oh, Richards, of "The New York Times," yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. Well, you know, we invite all the people on opening night to see it.

Studs Terkel Oh, you do? [unintelligible].

Anna Deavere Smith You know, so that's a big event, you know. Which I love, you know. That there's the real people there. And, of course, the audience is--the audience--it's also exciting when I, when a very famous person is there and the audience knows they're there. You know? The people turn, and look, and, you know.

Studs Terkel But I want to come back--we'll take our last break. So I want to ask about, also, people--we know the Koreans were in great trouble in L.A., and there was this, there's also a Hispanic, Spanish, Latino people--like an old friend of mine, activist, he says, "Latino, not Hispanic. Latino." Of course, Hispanic means elegant. Leo Carrillo. You know Leo Carrillo?

Anna Deavere Smith No.

Studs Terkel He was a famous actor years ago, the first Mexican-American actor who was a fink. He was the number one fink. He was the 125 percent toady. But he would [always?] say, "I am of Spanish--

Anna Deavere Smith Huh.

Studs Terkel Not [Mexican?], of Spanish, Castillian [descent?].

Anna Deavere Smith Castillian was different.

Studs Terkel So a lot of the guys say, "We're Latino." It's about, call us anything you want. But I want to ask about you, and how you capture the feelings, and also we talk of language as well. We're talking to Anna Deavere Smith, who will be performing--well, performing--being in Chicago on stage and you, of course, quite astonished and accelerated, at the Rubloff Theater under the auspices of the Goodman Theater.

Anna Deavere Smith It's a collaboration. A co-production--

Studs Terkel The Goodman Theater--

Anna Deavere Smith With the--

Studs Terkel And the Art Institute--

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel In conjunction with the exhibition, "About place," and you'll be doing a whole variety of stuff on the stage. It's 7 o'clock, May 12th. I guess you better get tickets fast because I'm sure it's going to be sold out, at the Rubloff Auditorium, Art Institute. The people you--naturally, I want to hear as many as you--catch you unawares here--just impressions of them, as you offered, and so graciously. A Korean. The merchant, the storekeeper.

Anna Deavere Smith Well, you know, this part of the story is probably what interested me the most, having been raised on the East Coast and really, you know, psychologically, in every other way, thinking of race as a story of Black and White in America, having grown up in Baltimore, and so forth. It's south and not the South. And when I went to L.A. it was a greater challenge for me because this was much more complicated than Black and White, although the media made it seem that way. It was a very complicated story with Blacks burning Korean stores. Difficult to understand the relationship between Blacks and Koreans, what had led to this type of situation. And also that very few people realize how many Latinos participated in this riot. For that reason a lot of people call this a poverty riot. I talked to two young Latino boys who'd stole bunk beds--

Studs Terkel [unintelligible]

Anna Deavere Smith Bunk beds. Bunk beds.

Studs Terkel Oh, bunk beds.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. You know, they stole bunk beds. And I asked them, well, you know, what they were doing, you know, if they knew about Rodney King. They didn't even know who Rodney King was. Because the Hispanic and Latino television stations hadn't really covered the whole trial. They just thought it was like a carnival outside. They didn't know what was happening. And they just joined in. So there's also this assumption that we have that people know what they're doing, or that it was a political uprising. And others tell me that it wasn't an uprising at all. It was a poverty riot. It was an explosion. A social explosion.

Studs Terkel How did one of these kids talk to you?

Anna Deavere Smith I can't--I'd have to brush that up for you.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith I wouldn't want to embarrass them.

Studs Terkel No. Or the Korean that you--

Anna Deavere Smith Well, a lot of variety there, and there, too, I'd be very nervous about, you know, not brushing it up before I did it, you know.

Studs Terkel But you would capture them we should point out. Because I remember, I'm watching you on TV capturing it and how you do it. So you have the microphone, as you've done the tape. And there's the tape, you hear the voices, and now you listen and you remember seeing them at the time, though in the case of one phone call, you see them. And then, how the body works, too, the body language. How all of this becomes this character, and you're shifting, you're on stage all the time.

Anna Deavere Smith Right. Right. Yeah, I'm on stage all the time. Well, the body--I work with a movement coach who tries to make sure that whatever I'm doing with my body, you know, has variety. [Then?] we try to get rid of my telling mannerisms--that's the big killer--is when my own, you know, tics and things come through. And I just try to be as specific as I can. But ultimately what happens is, and you must have this even in an interview, is that you, you set out in one way but you kind of, it's like the feeling of it takes over, or the flow takes over, and that's what begins to design it.

Studs Terkel Yeah. This is, I mean, you're touching on something else here, you see. Of course you plan it. Of course the beginning, middle, and end. Of course you rehearse it. But at the same time it's almost like jazz, in a sense.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel There's room for an improvisatory moment--

Anna Deavere Smith That's right.

Studs Terkel That you may have not had in mind--

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel But that flow you talk about--

Anna Deavere Smith Right. That's right.

Studs Terkel Takes over.

Anna Deavere Smith And I have to be very careful about those, and the audience, too, because like the old commedia performers, you know, sometimes I'm tempted to do like a, what's called a lazzi, you know, because there might be a gesture or something that I do that amuses the audience. Then I have to keep myself from the temptation of going overboard.

Studs Terkel I've got to tell you a [big? good?] story. You've heard of Zero Mostel?

Anna Deavere Smith Sure.

Studs Terkel The great, marvelous, one of the greatest. Zero had a problem--the cast [had a problem with him?]--whenever he'd hear that, he would just take off and the show went on a half an hour longer than it did and the cast would go crazy. Audience would love it, and the cast would go out of their minds, you see. He couldn't stop.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah.

Studs Terkel And that you have to watch. That was Zero's own ego.

Anna Deavere Smith Right.

Studs Terkel Which, of course, was tremendous and justifiably so. He was absolutely magnificent. But he couldn't stop himself.

Anna Deavere Smith Right. Yes. I mean, with Al Sharpton, for example, he had a mannerism of like, pushing his lips out like that, you know--

Studs Terkel You gotta do Al Sharpton.

Anna Deavere Smith Once in a while. Once in a while, right? You know, "The driver left the country," you know? like that. So, but if I, it delights the audience when I do that but if I do it too much, not only is it offensive to Mr. Sharpton, it becomes a stereotype.

Studs Terkel Now, you see, here is Anna Deavere Smith, who is elegant--forgive me--is elegant looking, is doing all these characters. And Al Sharpton is a heavyset guy. Audience may know of him, and considered troublesome in very many quarters, but is also very--how can I put it--full of all sorts of juiciness. Now you just, how, what did you--you're Al Sharpton, Reverend Sharpton. You are.

Anna Deavere Smith Yeah. He's, you know, he's bigger than me. And I love that, you know, I get the opportunity to take up a whole lot of space.

Studs Terkel You gotta see her now!

Anna Deavere Smith Because as a woman, you know, I'm 5, you know, whatever, 10, and everything, you know, everything about you has to be in, you know, to be-keep everything in and in one straight, thin line. So I love it that, you know, everything can just hang out, the [stomach?]--

Studs Terkel Yeah. So how does he sound?

Anna Deavere Smith "The driver left the country! Nobody asks, why did he run? If you and I [were in?] an accident we'd have to go to civil court. Why is this man," now you're making me laugh! "Why is this man above the law? So they said, well he's in Israel. So I say, well, I'll go to Israel [and show best ethics?].

Studs Terkel See, what you also, you capture a certain quality. That's it. That is HE. Or that is SHE. And it's, you do that. So, as we near the end of the hour, I would say reluctantly near the end of the hour, we're talking to Anna Deavere Smith, who is, to put it very simply, a unique and original performer. But also a creative spirit, capturing the words of others but capturing the soul of others. And we're talking about tremendous events in our time. Although she captures other non-cataclysmic events. And, so, we'll hear excerpts--some of these during your performance on May 12th at the Rubloff Auditorium of the Art Institute, the Goodman Theater and they together. It'll be a composite, it'll be a number of various people.

Anna Deavere Smith Yes. It'll be different, you know, from different shows. I just want to say, you know, before we go that when people told me about you, the great Studs Terkel, and the key to your genius, they told me it was your enormous and great concentration. And I've, I'm sort of, it's phenomenal to me to be in the presence of that right now. And to tell you, the only other time I've heard that kind of concentration described is with surgeons--people who've been in great trouble have told me the thing that made them feel the best about their surgeons is that, when they met their surgeon, they felt there was nobody else in the world but them. And being with you today, I've had that feeling, that there's nobody else in the world but me.

Studs Terkel [Oh, my gosh?]

Anna Deavere Smith And it's a remarkable feeling and I thank you for it. And I'm going to try to learn from it as I do more interviews.

Studs Terkel Well, I gotta quit while I'm ahead here. Right now the wind is with us. Thank you very much, indeed, Anna Deavere Smith.

Anna Deavere Smith Thank you for having me.