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Anna Deavere Smith: the art of listening, repeating

House Arrest and Piano; Two Plays; Anna Deavere Smith Anchor Books: 282 pp., $13 paper

April 21, 2004|Carmela Ciuraru | Special to The Times

ANNA Deavere Smith's body of work is not easy to define, partly because she has created a genre entirely her own. Part reportage, part performance, her award-winning plays have reflected our national culture and character with provocative candor, taking on issues of racism, sexism, class and politics.

In "Fires in the Mirror," she examined the 1991 riots and lingering tensions in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. "Twilight: Los Angeles, 2002" was her dissection of the city's turmoil after the Rodney King verdict.

Her process involves interviewing dozens, sometimes hundreds, of subjects, then embodying their words onstage in a sort of "documentary theater," seamlessly inhabiting figures such as Al Sharpton, Gloria Steinem, President Clinton and a Hasidic rabbi; her vocal and physical range appear limitless. Her brilliance lies partly in the juxtaposition of her characters and partly in the way she discovers identity and character through their syntax, linguistic tics, pauses and stammers. The sly transitions she makes from one character to the next yield jarring, even hilarious effects.

Though Smith's plays can be disturbing, she never seems to push a single point of view or to judge anyone's perspective. Unlike fellow provocateur Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker whose work sometimes seems undermined by his ego, Smith does not come across as manipulative or self-serving. If anything, she honors whatever person she is "performing," regardless how repugnant their statements may be.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
"Twilight" title -- A book review in the April 21 Calendar section called Anna Deavere Smith's play dissecting the turmoil in Los Angeles after the Rodney G. King verdict "Twilight: Los Angeles, 2002." The correct title is "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."

So how does such a mesmerizing performer's work translate when adapted as a book? Though nothing beats the immediacy and force of seeing her onstage, her words are compelling on their own, as proved in her latest, a compilation of two plays, "House Arrest" and "Piano."

The first is a trip through the theater of U.S. politics, in which she brings to life the voices of presidents and prominent members of the media, among others. (The "House" of the title is the White House.) The cast of characters is dizzying -- there are more than 40 roles -- and because of the line breaks she chooses, some of the monologues read like free verse.

Here is Clinton, interviewed before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, talking about the political press: "When Hillary's / legal / uh bills were found, / oh it was all over the papers right? / She had to go talk to a grand jury. / First Lady going to a grand jury. / Big pictures!" Of his own troubles with the media, he says, "I just keep standin' up I'm like one of those Baby Huey dolls / that we had when you're a kid. / You punch 'em and they come back up."

Former President George H.W. Bush, portrayed as being interviewed in the summer of 1997 while "drinking an Orange Crush and eating a chocolate chip cookie," tells the interviewer that "[a]s long as the economy is good, everybody is fat, dumb and happy, / that may be right. / We might not need a President."

"Piano," set in 1898, takes place in the sitting room of a mansion on a Cuban sugarcane plantation just before the Spanish-American War and delivers sharp truths about race, culture, exploitation and power struggles.

"In this play," she writes, "we also see the turning of a servant class into a powerful class. We see those who are the subjects strive to become the authors of their own history."

Near the end, Carlito, the wise young son of this prosperous household, remarks poignantly that "one day we will have to fight America, because they are very big. And we are so small. And that which is big always tries to kill that which is small. It is a law of human nature. But there is great promise in that which is small, if we are clear."

Collecting these plays in one volume is deliberate. "Both plays question the power of the media in shaping our 'truths,' " Smith writes in her introduction. "Each play has within it a question about history -- a question about the authorship of history and the ownership of history. Authorship of history equals power."

Considering the fragile, precarious moment in which the United States finds itself today, both domestically and abroad, the publication of these plays couldn't be more timely. Smith asserts that in writing historical plays, she writes a reaction to history, rather than a record of it. But her work seems to do both and, in truth, it also has the power to shape the possibilities of the future, if only people would pay attention.

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