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Anna Deavere Smith

By PJ Corso

 

Playwright-actor Anna Deavere Smith has been called a road warrior. She goes into a community, interviews residents about a socially charged event and then performs their words for professional theaters. It's proven to be a winning combination. Her most recent one-woman docudrama, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, about the riots that erupted when a jury acquitted the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King, was awarded the Obie for best play and she was nominated for two Tonys for best actor and play. Her previous work, Fires in the Mirror, which documents racial tension between blacks and Jews in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, was so successful that Smith performed the piece on national television.

But it isn't necessarily a wining combination for the communities in which her pieces originated. Smith sees herself as a dramatic artist rather than a social activist, yet the brand of theater she's adopted beckons a look at the relationship between art and politics and how they can bring about community change. She may have dazzled audiences and theater critics alike with her dramatic performances and done a better reporting job than the media, but Smith's theater falls short of effecting social change.

German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht, whose goal was to point up the need for social change, said that while it is theater's business to entertain, great drama is "more intricate, richer in communication, more contradictory, and more productive of results." In his 1947-48 treatise, "A Short Organum for the Theater," Brecht says that the audience must be "entertained with the wisdom that comes from the solution of problems...." He goes on to day that his own epic theater shouldn't just elicit emotions but employ and encourage those thoughts and feelings that help transform the field of human relations.

Perhaps the best way to accomplish Brecht's goals for social change is what actor-activist Ossie Davis called theater that is "of, by and for" the community. An early example of this came with the emergence of street theater in the early 1950s. For example, Harlem gang members performed Dope, a play based on their own words. A more contemporary example is the Roadside Theater, a company from Appalachia that examines the art of celebrating the community from which it came. According to an article, "Arts Presenting and the Celebration of a Community's Culture," in the Winter 1993 issue of High Performance, Roadside members are all natives of the coal fields of the central Appalachian region. They aim to develop a theatrical form and content that makes sense to their neighbors. The company toured its original productions in coalmining communities around its home, although now it tours outside the region.

Community performance begins with an issue that's important to a group of people. If the play's issue is current, it will be relevant. For example, New York's Bond Street Theater coalition, a traveling troupe that initiates community arts projects around the world, wrote a play about power called, Nightmare on Wall Street. When the company performed the piece in Brazil, artistic director Joanna Sherman said that it was well-received because the country was in the process of impeaching its president. "They thought it was written for them," she said.

Community members participate in the performance. Some may act or design costumes. Others may organize refreshments or publicity. There are many ways to get people involved. When Bond Street began an artist's colony in the Catskills, it held open houses where residents could learn how to juggle, walk on stilts or tightrope between trees. Finally, the play is performed for the community in the community. Sherman said Bond Street lured people from the community to their shows because "they were free and there was nothing else happening. We had kids coming back for every performance. They had our lines memorized. If we changed one word, they knew it. They left reciting Shakespeare on their bikes."

"Of, by and for theater" has the greatest impact on the community. It's too soon to gauge the impact of Smith's Twilight on Los Angeles but it will be two years since Fires was performed in New York and three years since the Crown Heights event took place. Fires centers on the August 1991 incident where a station wagon driven by a Hasidic man swerved onto the sidewalk, running over a seven year old black boy, Gavin Cato. Three hours later, a young Jewish scholar, Yankel Rosenbaum, was surrounded by a group of black youths and stabbed. Four days of rioting and firebombing followed the two deaths.

When compared to the "of, by and for" theater model, Fires is one for three. While the play's content explored a community event, its format was not community related. It's of but not by or for the community.

Fires was a professional production, using professional artistic, technical, and administration staff. In newspaper accounts, Smith says that her original goal for her On the Road: Search for American Character (of which Twilight and Fires are a part) was to have a traveling troupe of actors based on the model of a theater group that accompanied the civil rights movement. Her reason for excluding others? She claims she's not good at raising money to support more than one artist. This is coming from a woman who has tenure at Stanford University and who wrote Fires while a grantee at Radcliffe. Ultimately, Smith's first allegiance is to her art because she must be fully aware that being a sole performer on stage is what makes her piece so dramatic.

Smith embodies 26 people in Twilight--men, women, black, white, Korean, Latino--and about 20 in Fires--Hasidic and black--using simple props such as a hat, a gesture, a pose, a manner of speaking. The theatricality of her performance is that each individual she portrays is truly distinct. Nevertheless, having theater professionals perform someone else's oral history is a missed opportunity for empowering members of the community.

Crown Heights residents participated in a limited way during panel discussions held after two of the performances. According to Dr. David Lazerson, director of Project Cure, a Crown Heights community organizations devoted to bringing together blacks and Jews, these discussions were critical.

"The real change in the community has to come from within. It's not going to come from outsiders in a hit and run fashion," Lazerson said, noting that without a community panel discussion following the play, very little exchange would come out of it.

For the most part, "Fires" was not performed for the community. According to Baz Kershaw in his book, The Politics of Performance, the audience must be constituted as a community before the event if social change is to result. Although it had an extended run at one of New York's top professional theaters and aired on PBS, the audiences do not constitute community as defined by Kershaw. Fires was not performed in the community where it originated. Activists said there was one showing in Brooklyn outside Crown Heights, but apparently lack of transportation and limited publicity prevented Crown Heights residents from attending.

Political theater artists say it's important to bring socially minded theater to the community. Sherman's Bond Street Theater performs in parks. "We open ourselves up to people who would never consider for a moment stepping inside a theater. This way you demystify the elite quality of theater as being only for the intelligentsia. If you don't do this, you're negating the work," she said.

In newspaper interviews, Smith says she tells community residents interviewed for her plays that she wants them to attend the show. Ideally the show should be brought to residents rather than expecting them to go to it. Another drawback to Fires is that the vast majority of Jews there are Lubavitchers who don't have TVs in their homes and aren't inclined to go to the theater--particularly outside their neighborhood.

Despite these shortcomings, the subject matter of Smith's play is about the community. Moreover, it portrays issues more accurately and fairly than did the media. For example. Smith interviewed more than 200 people for Twilight, which is undoubtedly more than any single journalist has time for. Everybody seemed to draw this conclusion except journalists. New York Times theater critic Frank Rich said in his review of Fires that Smith's show is an example of what "one person can accomplish, at the very least in disseminating accurate, unbiased inside reportage, simply by listening to all the warring occupants of the urban neighborhood. This puts Ms. Smith ahead of most politicians..." Apparently, Rich exempts his profession from such criticism but activists don't.

I have yet to read a fully accurate assessment of what took place in Crown Heights in newspapers and certainly not on TV. What Anna Deavere Smith tried to do was more thoughtful and thought-provoking than the media," said Michael Miller, executive directory of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.

Crown Heights Jewish Community Council Chair Rabbi Joseph Spielman, who along with Miller was depicted in the play, said that the media only gave bits and pieces of coverage whereas Smith tried to give the whole picture.

"She gave my position about the resistance to solve the problem of 80 hours of looting and the fact that nobody has come forward for the death of Yankel even though there were witnesses. The media didn't cover this in a meaningful way. They didn't care," Spielman said.

The biggest objection both Miller and Spielman had to Fires was the final scene with Gavin Cato's father. Spielman says, "It leaves people with the impression that there was justification for what happened to Yankel Rosenbaum and there is none."

Smith said in a New York Newsday interview that the media's oversight caused her to conclude the play with the boys father. "I realized that newspapers became more and more silent about Gavin Cato, and more and more preoccupied with well-known spokespeople. Part of my work is about the unheard," she said. In both Twilight and Fires, the playwright reached sources the media didn't. Nonetheless the impact of her plays could be so much greater if she expanded the community's role beyond the interviewing process.

Richard Green, chief executive of the Crown Heights Youth Collective, said he's rate Fires impact a 7 out of 10. "It allowed you to step out of personal involvement and feed from an objective perspective," said Green, who was also portrayed in the play.

"The impact on the community was not made by Anna Deavere Smith (in Fires) but by what happened on August 19, 1991," said Spielman.

Miller said the production "was helpful in that it may have crystallized some lessons, but what happens on a daily basis in Crown Heights is what's really critical, and I don't think theater can have an impact on that."

This may be true for Smith's type of theater, but it doesn't have to be the case with "of, by, for" community performance. According to Sherman, the ultimate test of making an impact on the community with theater is simple. "You go into the community and leave traces," she said.

She remembers when her troupe was invited to be the resident company in the Israel Festival in 1984. She says they met ahead of time with Arabs and Jews to solicit their participation.

"We had everything from Kurdish drummers to Hora dancers and the Arab Youth Orchestra. After three weeks of working on theater, they all were so busy they got along with each other. The company stayed together for a number of years and held an annual street theater festival. That's what I mean by leaving traces."

Community activists said Fires left few traces in Crown Heights. They same probably could be said for Twilight since both plays have the same format. Community activism in Crown Heights or South Central LA wasn't galvanized by a play, but it could be. And if that were the case, Smith wouldn't win all kind of commercial awards because she'd be as much a social activist as she is a dramatic artist. The community would be the real victor.

P.J. Corso is a playwright and co-editor of the book International Women Playwrights (Scarecrow Press, 1993).