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Front Row for an Appearance by Anna Deavere Smith

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When my friend Peggy was just starting to write fiction about 20 years ago, she went to hear Alice Walker read at Women and Children First and slipped Walker a story of her own. Walker gamely sent back the piece with one sentence of advice: "You have a lot to learn." (Or maybe it was: "You have a long way to go.") "I did," my friend says now, though she was upset and humiliated at the time. "It wasn't an unkind thing to say."

On a recent weeknight Karine Koret paid $20 to hear Anna Deavere Smith lecture on the presidency and perform excerpts from House Arrest at the Chicago Historical Society. She parked her car in a possibly illegal space, sat down behind legendary oral historian and writer Studs Terkel, and hoped she'd get a chance to ask Smith whether she should go to graduate school.

Koret, 24, leads theater workshops for women at Cook County Jail and for people with disabilities through Esperanza School and has performed the stories of clients of the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture. She played Studs's wife, Ida, in a recent ensemble collage staged by Scrap Mettle Soul. She first became familiar with Smith when studying theater at Boston University. After graduating from BU, Koret auditioned for a sitcom, came to Chicago with a boyfriend, and met Lisa Wagner from Still Point Theatre Collective; Wagner does a one-woman show based on the life of activist Dorothy Day. Koret developed Lily, a piece about her grandmother, to favorable reviews in the Sun-Times and Reader and has toured with it to universities and synagogues around the country.

Smith, 51, has created three "documentary theater" pieces drawn from interviews with people in the midst of racial, cultural, or political conflict. First was Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities. Next was Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. House Arrest is based on more than 500 interviews with Washington figures ranging from former secretary of labor Alexis Herman to Bill Clinton, with the words of long-passed presidents in the mix. She's also appeared on the TV series The West Wing.

And she does Studs Terkel. At a museum conference not long ago, "she became Studs Terkel, I swear to God," said Historical Society president Lonnie Bunch in his welcome speech. Then Terkel, in his trademark red-checked shirt and red vest, scarf, and socks, introduced Smith, saying: "She captures not just the words of a person but the soul of a person." And: "If Anna Deavere Smith can do me, she can do anybody." As he finished speaking, Smith dropped to one knee in homage--good-natured, not mocking. That set the tone: casual, intimate.

"I perform Studs all over America," she said. "In fact, I usually start my speeches with him, saying that he's my mentor, and he's never kinda given me permission to be his mentee." Terkel's name came up again after she interpreted the words of a tour guide at Monticello. "I was unable to tape Thomas Jefferson," Smith told a receptive, applause-happy audience. "Most of the things you see me doing are word-for-word interviews of people, you know, that I tape-record, and I have to say that this whole process had many origins but Studs Terkel was one of the influences for me. 'Cause when I was in acting class we'd do these scenes like from A Streetcar Named Desire or A Raisin in the Sun and then when the teacher kinda ran out of something for you to do he'd say, 'Do a Working,' and that was Studs's book, Working. Other people were upset if they got a Working 'cause they didn't want to do a monologue. They wanted to have a love scene or something or a fight scene but I loved getting those Workings, and that was one of the first things that sparked my mind about how fascinating it is to have the actual words....So all that to say, without a tape recorder, this is my imagination about what Jefferson might have sounded like."

And she launched into an excerpt from Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia in an aristocratic southern accent, followed by a letter he wrote about how to tell if someone is black. The latter, usually performed with a blackboard, she said, was full of mind-numbing calculations: "Now you asked me in conversation what constituted a mulatto by our law. It becomes a mathematical problem. All right. So. Let the first crossing of a, pure Negro, little a, pure Negro, with big A, pure white--little a, pure Negro, big A, pure white, the unit of blood of the issue being composed of the half of that of each parent will be little a over two, plus big A over two, call it for abbreviation little b, half blood. Let little q and little e cohabit, the half of the blood of each will be a q over two plus e over two equals little a over eight plus big A over eight plus big B over four plus little a over sixteen plus big A over sixteen plus big B over eight plus big C over four equals little a to the third over sixteen..." That speech had the audience laughing at its absurdity, and perhaps wondering if Jefferson could have imagined that in 21st-century America a self-described former "nice Negro girl" would be reading his correspondence after being welcomed by a prominent black man and then a Jew.

This was one of the most affecting pieces of the evening. Smith also performed Alexis Herman's recounting of her father's confrontation with the Klan when she was five years old in Georgia and former Texas governor Ann Richards talking about being "cool," a word delivered in at least two syllables. There was a Bill Clinton segment as well, but Smith's aside about a comment he made to her was more interesting. He had seen her show, she said, and told her, "You're very lithe when you bow." Then she showed the audience a movement she'd learned to elicit standing ovations, involving a low bow and arms that rise as she rises.

Terkel was her last act, and she borrowed his scarf for it. In 1993, tape recorder by her side, she had asked him if there was a defining moment in American history. There was no one moment, he'd said, only accretions, and told about an experience with a disembodied announcer at the Atlanta airport and the lack of human responses to it. "Now we have humans imitating robots," said Terkel through Smith, as she leaned back, alternating between a rumble and a shout. She ended with, "OK, kid, I gotta scram, gotta go see my cardiologist."

A full minute of applause followed, with whistling, and then, with Smith's bow, a standing ovation. Terkel, who turned 90 this week, came onstage and took his scarf, which Smith was already wearing, and knotted it around her neck. Questions came from the audience: about crossover appeal, about the lack of dissent after September 11, and then in a clear voice the young woman with thick wavy dark hair pulled back from her face said, "Hi, my name is Karine Koret, and I perform my grandmother's testimony of the Holocaust as a one-woman show and I was inspired by your work. I studied Anna Deavere Smith's Twilight in my acting conservatory at Boston University in junior and senior year in college, and I'm now working on my grandfather's story, and I'm just so inspired by you and how you've gotten your voice out there and your work and the questions that you're raising in society--sort of getting this cross-cultural dialogue happening. And I'm wondering what sort of catapulted you into, I mean, where did you sort of begin, in what theaters, in what schools? Where was your venue so that you were able to be heard?"

"Well, I really started in small groups," Smith answered, with small commissions. She would get just enough money to pay for her tapes and would do interviews over the phone because she couldn't afford to travel to do them in person. "Mainly in my case I would say it was less about getting seen and heard. It was more about developing my own ear and trying to find ways of supporting that until I figured out how to make narrative out of dissimilar parts." She added, "I started on this project in 1979 and I didn't come to national recognition until 1992. So, patience."

Koret waited in line at the museum shop to buy Smith's book Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics and then waited for her to sign it. Senior year, in 1998, when she'd seen Smith perform and also asked her for advice, Smith had told her to surround herself with talented people. And she had. Now she wanted to know about the fall. She'd been accepted into the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and was afraid that graduate school would "curb my life" and "cut me off artistically." Did she need a master's in social work in order to do what she wants to do, which is tell the stories of people who've undergone trauma?

Smith considered it. "It's worth knowing something about human behavior," she said. If you're working with people who have survived political torture, "you should know what you're doing." Otherwise, if things descend into chaos, you lose people's trust. "Acting calls for going to a place people don't usually go to with their lives. If you're not working with actors, you should get backup." Backup, meaning training in psychology. But letters after her name aren't important.

Koret left, satisfied, hoping her car hadn't been towed.

It hadn't. Several days later she said she'd decided: She would keep doing what she was doing--living a life that combines art and politics--and take a few psychology classes, but not pursue a degree right away. "I work in social work every day," she has realized. She'll continue to develop her grandfather's story, which she'll perform in the fall, and think about interviewing Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

There's been talk lately of the role of public intellectuals. You can even go to school in order to become one. But some of us want our own private intellectual. Or artist. What did Peggy want from Alice Walker? "Approval," she says now. Once, in graduate school, I interviewed my teacher, fiction writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz, for the university paper. At one point she said, "You're asking these questions for yourself, aren't you?" I probably denied it, but it was true, and I was mortified. Some years later I went to hear Allen Ginsberg read, hoping that he would explain Buddhism to me. He didn't. Before Smith's performance started, I ran into my friend George, a historian, in the audience. I told him about an oral history performance project I wanted to do and I said, "I want to be Anna Deavere Smith." He told me he'd seen her perform at a history convention. After that, he said, he'd wanted to be her too.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Janette Beckman.

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