October 2011

Anna Deavere Smith

[Theater Artist, Anthropologist]

“If you’re so smart, just be smart. If you’re offering an idea, just offer the idea.”
Female U.S. national security advisors, in order of appearance:
Nancy McNally, as played by Anna Deavere Smith
Condoleezza Rice

I first saw Anna Deavere Smith’s work on video. Remember video? Like, actual VHS? That’s how long I’ve been an überfan. I was a high-school junior, and my humanities teacher, esteemed author and educator Rick Ayers, popped in a tape of Twilight: Los Angeles. Twilight, the critically acclaimed one-woman theater piece, starred Ms. Deavere Smith, and was based entirely on verbatim interviews of those affected by the 1992 Rodney King riots. I was spellbound by the way she was able to toggle between perspectives, generously and deftly moving between portrayals of Korean American store owners, Baptist preachers, and grieving mothers. By twelfth grade I was plotting how to meet the genius. When I heard she was on the faculty at NYU, I applied, got in, and began asking how I could audit one of her classes. I quickly discovered how sought-after she was, and four years passed without even a chance encounter. So I made do. I took study breaks as I watched one of her TV pieces, Fires in the Mirror, incessantly. I followed nearly religiously as she played Nancy McNally on Aaron Sorkin’s television masterwork The West Wing. If I had Showtime right now, I’d be tuned in to see her on Nurse Jackie.

But I don’t, and I’ve been going through A.D.S. withdrawal. So I was thrilled when the Believer asked me to interview her as she visited the Berkeley Repertory Theatre for a run of her latest piece, Let Me Down Easy. One of my own theater pieces, Mirrors in Every Corner, which ran in San Francisco, had garnered a bit of attention from the press, and nearly every interviewer drew parallels between her work and mine. Those connections were the highest of compliments. As a theater-maker, educator, and performer, Ms. Deavere Smith has set a standard above aesthetic reproach for the better part of three decades.

But how do you interview the best interviewer in the game? How do you acknowledge the magnitude of your hero’s impact on your life, and still maintain a modicum of professionalism? It seemed like the best way for me to honor what I love best about Anna Deavere Smith’s process was to crowd-source at least some of the interview questions. So the conversation Deavere Smith and I had was provoked, in part, by questions from fellow playwrights, thespians, academics, community organizers, and spiritual leaders.

We met at a café near San Francisco’s Union Square a few hours before showtime. I had a chamomile tea. She ordered a large Diet Coke. Not one hair on her head was out of place. She answered each question with the gentle expertise of a seasoned artist and the benevolence of an effective educator. She was sifu, maestra, and virtuoso. I was so nervous that I made up words. The conversation left me with the feeling that I might never again sit with someone so wise. It was well worth the wait.

—Chinaka Hodge


THE BELIEVER: What’s the art outside of theater that inspires you?

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It’s not just art. I love so much anything I look at that seems to have some aesthetic to it—and it could be an accident like Lake Tahoe or Victoria Falls or Aspen—anything that is naturally beautiful is very inspiring to me. And I’m very interested in modern art. You never know when you’re going to trip over something that’s going to inspire you. I was very inspired by the music of Robert Ashley and Meredith Monk and John Adams and Steve Wright, and I had no reason to be. Nothing led me to that music except accident, but it all really affected my work—anything does that I’m able to understand immediately, which at the same time is outside of my realm of understanding, in other words, that doesn’t come to me from any consecutive thing leading up to it.

If you looked at my biography, what I had done or been listening to when I came upon some odd, weekend-long radio station playing minimalist music in my walk-up apartment in New York in 1976, or something like that––there’s nothing that if you looked at it, it would be, Oh, she did this, she did that: of course she would be drawn to it. So when it happens to me, where it’s way outside the realm of what I should be interested in, yet there’s a connection and I’m really connected and I’m not struggling to know it—I find that to be very inspiring. Then, after experiencing it, I find out, Oh, that’s what it is, now let me learn more about this.

To be drawn to something and changed by something, free from the way we think about “art appreciation” or art education… I certainly have to stand for that, because that’s what I teach and that’s what I do. We try to think about art appreciation in a logical, consecutive way, but, in all honesty, I know that the truly transformative aesthetic experiences happen in a pattern way outside the realm of that.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Chinaka Hodge is a poet, playwright, and author from Oakland, California. In 2002, she was the inaugural recipient of the 826 Valencia Young Author’s Scholarship, which she used to complete her undergraduate studies at NYU. She is currently pursuing her MFA in writing for film and TV at USC. chinakahodge.com

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