Perspective on an Onstage Talkback with Anna Deavere Smith

Arts / Article

By Josh Campbell, PTC Education Intern and University of the Arts student

“I use my work as a forum; to offer up a discussion and invite those who may not either have their stories presented onstage or come to theatre and be a part of the discussion” Anna Deavere Smith, did just that on Wednesday February 26, 2014, as she fielded questions from the audience about her life, her work, and The Pipeline Project.

Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter, Anna Deavere Smith, and Sara Garonzik at the Opening Night of LET ME DOWN EASY at Philadelphia Theatre Company in March 2011. Photo credit: Paola Nogueras.

The event began with the moderator, Dr. Kimberly Benston, welcoming Ms. Smith to the stage. For the occasion, Smith requested that we strip the theatre to “expose” herself, her process, and the audience to the truth behind the theatrical magic. Onstage sat Smith, the moderator, a throw rug and a small table behind an exposed back theatre wall. The effect: to create intimacy, open invitation, and community – a common theme throughout the night.

Smith is a child of the 60’s. Having watched her parents’ generation march with Dr. King and seeing the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the nation, Smith discussed how she has committed herself to gathering everyone in the room and discussing the state of America. She gave a shout out to her Shakespeare acting teacher, who inspired her to pursue acting and making the art she wanted too. On the topic of the research she conducts, Smith discussed her techniques for conducting interviews and what she looks for. She looks for the moment in which the interviewee vocal inflections change, and leans in closer. In that moment she is intrigued and has found her hook. The connection is based on the same Shakespeare teacher who reminded her that the key to Shakespeare lies in the text – the moment when the rhythm changes. This shift intrigues Smith, thus leading her to look for that in performance and in delivering the text of the show.

Smith’s journey to finding America’s character through the people in the nation was documented. As a student of theatre, it was interesting listening to Smith discuss the idea of getting everyone’s point of view on a situation and how this lifelong pursuit has allowed her to begin conversations with different subjects. She began this process by going to colleges including University of Pennsylvania, in which she performed and perfected her technique by interviewing members of its staff about diversity and performing it, to offer and start a conversation amongst those she interviewed.

Unbeknownst to the audience, many of the folks she has interviewed in her residency at the Philadelphia Theatre Company were present – among them, a public defender, a judge, a concerned mother and her homeschooled daughter, an activist, and community leaders. In her words, she asked them to “testify” about their experiences with the topic of the school-to-prison pipeline. Smith began by recapping her private meeting from the end of last year, in which she met with some preliminary people, who placed her in context with those who would be good to interview. At this point in time, Smith turned to the audience to get their thoughts on the show’s topic. Questions ranged from who are you looking to interview, who have you interviewed, how are you going to handle the stress of such a heavy topic, and what comes next in her process.

The biggest “testimonial” came from a gentleman, who Smith met after the festivities. This gentleman, whose speech was documented for the PBS special, spoke at length about the problems he feels contribute to the pipeline, who is responsible, and who carries the burden.

With the end of his speech, Smith concluded the night. She reminded the audience that this talkback offers her inspiration and reminds her about the reason why her work is vital: to provide a forum, begin the discussion on a topic and theme, and invite those, who typically may not attend theatre, to come and testify to what is important to them.