Anna Deavere Smith tells artists to break boundaries through words

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • September 13, 2012

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Smith spoke to an audience of approximately 200 Thursday at the Paramount Mainstage.
Smith spoke to an audience of approximately 200 Thursday at the Paramount Mainstage.
Anna Deavere Smith, an award-winning actress, playwright, and author, spoke today about the power of words to invigorate and transform in a speech that blended monologues from her plays, quotes from author Eudora Welty, and thoughts for the artists and students at Emerson.

Smith has won a MacArthur Fellowship, two Tony nominations for "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" – which was performed at ArtsEmerson in February – and had roles in "The West Wing," "Rachel Getting Married," and "Nurse Jackie," among others.

Richard J. Orchard, the executive director of ArtsEmerson, introduced Smith by sharing her background and role galvanizing documentary theater.

Her speech at the Paramount Mainstage to an audience of approximately 200 was given as a precursor to President M. Lee Pelton's inauguration on Friday. It was not of the straightforward, explanatory type; she tried to show, through a combination of her stories and those of others, how important words can be.

It is equally important, she emphasized throughout her hourlong speech, not only to use words to speak, but to listen.

"Broken people will show you that they have enormous resources to use language in the most magnificent way to restore their dignity,” she said.

Listening is the foundation of her plays, she said, including her most recent piece, "Let Me Down Easy," a series of stories about health care and the human spirit. Smith said to create the piece, as in all her others, she interviewed people across the country. Then during the performance, she repeats their stories "utterance for utterance," portraying their words, tone of voice, body language, and even their smallest pauses in a viscerally convincing style.

Throughout her speech, Smith performed excerpts of that play. She also frequently read passages from works by Eudora Welte, a favorite author of both hers and Pelton's, she said, including "Why I Live at the P.O.," "The Optimist's Daughter," and "Where Is the Voice Coming From?". She seamlessly switched between those voices – hers, Welte's, and characters from her show – throughout her speech.

"I really enjoyed it," said James Kennedy, a junior theater studies major. "It was an interesting collage of established pieces and new commentary."

In particular, Smith said, artists should use words to push comfort zones – both theirs and of their audiences – and connect their audience to topics that may be foreign or intimidating.

"I think of our job as taking that leap, that broad jump toward the other," she said.

James Blaszko said Smith’s courageous performances are admirable.

"She makes the leap and the effort. It's commendable to see that, especially for students," said the junior theater studies major.

During the short question and answer session, Claudia Castañeda, Emerson scholar-in-residence, told Smith that her students were debating whether it was natural for human beings to seek likeness.

"This is a school for artists?" Smith responded, and Castañeda said yes. "Well," she said, "part of their education should be for adjusting that. Not all artists understand this is not an entirely narcissistic enterprise."