Smile Politely

What I learned from two consecutive evenings with Anna Deavere Smith

Last week the University of Illinois Year of Creative Writers series started strong with a two-day visit from award-winning writer/teacher/activist Anna Deavere Smith. Deaveare Smith has created “a new form of theatre—a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reverie,” which has never seemed more relevant than at this moment. The first evening found her presenting “living portraits of both legendary and everyday people who illustrate and illuminate her topics.” She masterfully and respectfully inhabits the essence of her subjects, almost appearing to channel rather than portray them. It was something to behold. 

While the range of voices was wildly diverse, they were bound together by a common thread; the notion of getting through the day, even when that day is dark, heavy with sorrow, or shimmering with anger and frustration. That night we met Kevin Moore, who famously video-recorded the beating of Freddy Gray. He got through that day, as well those after, by telling himself that “someone needs to see this… because the camera is the only weapon we have.” We met a bull-rider who goes all in, and will “ride till [his] head hits dirt,” knowing that he has hospitalization coverage. We were taken to Crown Heights to meet a witness to the race riots, who shared her story of having to convince a young black boy that she didn’t know how to turn off her radio, allowing him to wonder if Jews might not be as smart as they were cracked up to be, in order to avoid breaking the Shabbat law prohibiting the turning on or off of electricity.

These living portraits made us laugh, cry, and think. And while Deavere Smith embraces her role as entertainer, she is clearly after that third reaction: thought, and perhaps even more so, what change, what action (or activism) it might inspire. Before each portrait, Deavere Smith shared a bit about the subject, how they met, and what they taught her. Though choosing one singularly significant moment would be near impossible, I was particularly struck by Deavere Smith’s approach to the people she interviews and ultimately performs. She does not seek to “give voice,” but instead celebrates their own voices. She does not seek the most erudite and accomplished speakers. She chooses the most passionate, original, creative, and, aurally unique voices. Voices like that of Kevin Murphy who described life after the Freddy Gray riots as “like sinking in quicksand.” She does not speak their truths, she creates a space and a vehicle for their truths to be heard. As a teller of other people’s stories this was a powerful distinction and an important reminder. It is one of the many gifts I received over the course of Anna Deaveare Smith’s two-day visit to Krannert.

But the gifts kept on coming the following evening as composer Julia Woolf and Theatre at Illinois faculty member Lisa Dixon joined her on stage for CultureTalk with Anna Deavere Smith: The Artist’s Voice in Times of Crisis. This was a masterclass in art-making, collaboration, art as activism, and finding the tools to survive the fear of creative new and challenging work in difficult times. It was a rich and dynamic conversation that I was sad to have end. 

And while I do hope you were able to attend one, if not both of these evenings, I am here to recap a bit of the magic and wisdom these three magnificient humans shared with us. 

1. The power of seeking and offering forgiveness. In her Tuesday night performance Deavere Smith recounted Congressman John Lewis’ visit from one of the Klansman who had attacked him decades earlier during the Selma riots. He had come to ask forgiveness, to admit that he was wrong.  In an inspiring act of strength, Lewis accepted the apology. They both cried and called each other “my brother.” Think about this for a minute, particularly in the context of our current hate-filled culture. This is a powerful reminder of the potential for healing and unity. 

2. Artists have always responded to the world around them. In our current state of crisis, one of meanness and fear, looking at the whole picture can be paralyzing. Find your issue, your point of entry. For Deavere Smith, it was the school-to-prison pipeline that inspired Notes from the Field.

3. Collaborate with those who share your passion, your commitment, but who offer something different. This might mean choosing to work with artists who don’t seem like an obvious match. Deavere Smith shared how Woolf’s classical background was not an obvious fit for her work, but she was drawn to her curiosity and her willingness to listen. In fact, Woolf eventually took a page out of Deavere Smith’s playbook and interviewed members of the coal-mining town where her work was to be set. She says it transformed her work and her process. 

4. You can’t do it alone.  Find your support team. Both Deavere Smith and Woolf talked about the need to have people you can trust who can talk you off the ledge, or sit down on the floor next to you and lift you up. At a point when Woolf felt overwhelmed and considered giving up, Deavere Smith told her “no, you can’t stop.”  

5. Fear is part of the process. Woolf admitted to being terrified when she prepared for her first collaboration with the New York Philharmonic. But this fear means you are pushing out of your comfort zone. It means you are on to something big, something important. 

6. Find a way to deal with the fear and stress of the creative process.  Practice self care. Stress can kill you, and in the words of Anna Deavere Smith, “we don’t want that.” 

7. With art and with activism, start locally. See how you can make a difference locally. 

8. We are lucky to have a welcoming creative public square like Krannert. Wednesday night’s CultureTalk was free and open to the public. And frankly, it drew one of the most diverse crowds I’ve seen there.  Let’s hope it inspires more of the same. More discussion. More listening. More opportunities for art to bring people together to take on the hard thing together.

9. The artist has the ability (and perhaps the responsibility) to defy meanness and hate by creating beauty.  

10. Artists are skilled. We work hard at what we do and what we do is often hard and requires a great deal of time. Own that. 

The Year of Creative Writers is off to a strong start. Make sure to check out the rest of the calendar

The Year of Creative Writers series is supported by the Presidential Initiative to Celebrate the Impact of the Arts and the Humanities.

Presented by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) and the Creative Writing Program / Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Co-Sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities (UIC), UIC Program for Writers, UIS Creative Writing, the Champaign Public Library, the Urbana Free Library, Illinois Public Media, and The Illini Union Bookstore.

Anna Deveare Smith
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Avenue, Urbana
February 18th, 7:30 p.m.

CultureTalk with Anna Deavere Smith: The Artist’s Voice in Times of Crisis
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Avenue, Urbana
February 19th, 7:30 p.m.

Top image: Black and white headshot of Anna Deavere Smith. Photo from Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Arts Editor

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