August 16, 2006

Getting Deep Into Someone Else's Soul

On last week's NOW program, David Branchaccio interviewed Anna Deavere Smith, one the most gifted actresses/dramatists of our times. Deavere Smith is the creator and sole performer in two incredible pieces of theatre: Fires in the Mirror (a piece about the riots that happened in Brooklyn involving African Americans and Hasidic Jews in 1991) and Twilight Los Angeles: 1992 (which covered the Rodney King riots in LA).

What Anna Deavere Smith does is to become the people she is playing in her one person shows in a way that exposes and honors the people whose story she tells. She's uses her art to discover truths about people in their language.

I still have to make the trip to begin to see this from another person's point of view from other people's points of views, to see this geography of race, just positioning myself a little bit differently, less from the heart, if you will, less from automatic response and more patient, more like stepping back, stepping back, stepping back, stepping back.

When you watch her go from the angry young black man to the orthodox Jewish housewife to Al Sharpton, you become convinced that you are seeing a changling because it is so real. She has an incredible gift for getting so deeply into the words, the inflections and the actions of someone else that she seems to don their soul as completely as someone else would don their coat.

The NOW program ended with a piece that she did at last year's Global Health Conference. As this Times piece reported, she brought incredible insight into the complexity of this issue.

Artists play a unique role in helping the rest of us comprehend tragedy and perceive in it lessons about humanity and elements of hope. For those of us in the audience in the early evening today during the TIME Global Health Summit, it was hard to imagine a more moving moment than the appearance of HIV/AIDS orphans from South Africa pouring out their harmonies of faith. But then came the final act of that session: Anna Deavere Smith. An actress and playwright, Smith had recently visited both Africa and New Orleans to find fresh inspiration for her work. She returned with a bundle of indelible voices—personal narratives that she intends to weave into a show this spring.

The piece that NOW shared with us from that conference was her portrayal of Cornell West on the difference between hope and optimism - a profound and wise look at what we humans should expect of ourselves. Here's her rendition of West.

I use the language of decline, decay, and despair rather than doom, gloom and no possibility because I think any talk about despair is not where you end but where you start. And then the courage and sacrifice come in. But at the level of hope, not optimism. Optimism and hope are different. Optimism tends to be biased on the notion that there is enough evidence out there that allow us to think that things are going to be better. Much more rational, deeply secular. Whereas hope looks at the evidence and says 'it doesn't look good at all.' Says 'it doesn't look good at all.' Says 'we going to make a leap of faith, we going beyond the evidence that kept to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow us to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantees whatsoever.' That's hope. That's hope.

Here's her reflection on that piece she gave to David:

SMITH: And— and people responded to it, which I was pleased to see. That there is a place where very serious, smart people come to talk about serious issues. And there is a place where, you know, there's— there is an opportunity to try to speak with them at the place where the heart meets the mind. And that's what I try to prepare myself to do whenever I have the opportunity to do it.

She is a national treasure who knows how to open our eyes to the souls of others. You can see the interview here.

Posted by Mary at August 16, 2006 07:49 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

not so great to see
Iranian, Syrian Strongmen Try to Dilute Hopes for Peace in Mideast

Posted by: gwet at August 16, 2006 05:47 PM

My only complaint about Ms. Smith is that she hasn't created more of her amazing performances.

Posted by: palamedes at August 17, 2006 09:44 AM