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Life as art: character study: Anna Deavere Smith as herself.

USUALLY, ANNA DEAVERE SMITH IS THE ONE ASKING THE questions, A decade ago, the actress-playwright received a MacArthur "genius" award for pioneering a unique brand of theater, a cross between journalistic reporting and virtuosic acting, which explored race and culture in today's society. She would interview dozens of witnesses to some national political drama, then stitch their stories into insightful one-woman shows where she performed as many 50 personalities in a night. "I was on a quest--to steal a phrase from [19th-century poet] Walt Whitman--to absorb America," Smith says of her innovative method.

As the interviewee, however, she can be a cagey character.

"She prefers phone interviews," her publicist informs, which rules out a face-to-face chat.

"And she'll call you," the publicist adds, which leaves a reporter waiting like a jilted date by a phone that doesn't ring at the appointed hour.

After several crossed wires, attempts to reschedule and hopes almost dashed, one can't be faulted for thinking that the acclaimed actress would really rather not talk today. When Smith finally rings, her singsong voice has a trace of the disheveled professor, but not the diva. In fact, it's as if she's sitting across the kitchen table, sipping a cup of joe for a spell.

In her new book, Letters to a Young Artist, the actress declares that a basic tool in any artist's repertoire is presence: the ability to "hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it." Anna Deavere Smith has presence--in spades.

And the Mentor Goes to...

At the moment, Smith, who lives in New York City, is out at Montauk Point, a seaside town on Long Island's northeastern shore and a once-favorite retreat of Whitman's, a major literary influence. Fittingly, it is also the setting for many of the essays in Letters, an extended correspondence with a fictional young painter, BZ, who has won the actress's mentorship through an auction. A common criticism of the black baby boomers, Smith's generation, is that they failed to mentor subsequent "children"--the grands and great-grands--"of the dream." Some even contend that persistent ills in black communities, from the widening class divide to the equally vast leadership vacuum, stem from this treacherous generation gap. With Letters, Smith steps into the breach.

From different media (napkin scribbles, Blackberry text messages) and locations (in the backs of cabs, by the sea), the jet-setting Smith dispenses advice on what it takes (empathy, discipline) and what it means (studying the human condition) to be an artist. The title echoes German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's classic text, but in the book itself there are also hints of James Baldwin's masterpiece The Fire Next Time. On the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin writes a moving letter to his teenaged nephew, enlisting his namesake in the fight against racism. In Letters, Smith, 55, allows that BZ can be any reader. "If you are an artist of any age, if you are learning the ropes of your art form, and if you want to learn more about the rules of the road in the business of making and selling art, BZ is you."

Yet in conversation, the actress, who is also a professor at New York University, reveals a growing concern for poor black youth who too often see the world through bling-colored glasses. She recalls a Stanford-educated doctor friend who, disturbed by the dwindling numbers of black males in professional schools, visited Oakland to mentor teens. To his shame, they scoffed at the prospect of a $200,000-a-year Ivy League salary. "'You went to school all that time and that's all the money you're making?'" Smith says, mimicking the cocky tones of kids sure that a multimillion-dollar contract from the NBA or a rap-record deal is only a matter of time. "The notion of what is meaningful, what is successful, is out of control, is out of whack," she says, sounding now like the dedicated teacher she is.

Racism persists, no doubt. However, it is today's celebrity culture, Smith argues, that keeps youth stuck between states of brash bravado and low self-esteem, with no genuine sense of their own power. "What I'm trying to do in talking to BZ through these fictitious incidents and challenges is to keep going back to the agency that we all have," she says. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement, its veterans are passing, but the fight for equality continues on more fronts than ever. Letters aims to reinvigorate the idea of an artist as a visionary who dares to turn the world upside down to set it straight. "Are you becoming an artist because you want the world to look at you?" Smith challenges her imaginary apprentice. "Or are you becoming an artist to invite the world to see itself differently through you?"

A Road Trip to Remember

America has been seeing itself differently through Smith's tremendous talent for more than 20 years. In the 1980s, she began traveling the country's byways and backwoods to interview "cowboys and pig farmers;' she says, for a project called "On the Road: In Search of the American Character." On stage, as Smith's black, female body channeled these mythic figures of rugged, white masculinity, she challenged audiences to rethink outdated notions of race and gender.

It is the role of the actor to shed her skin, as she inhabits that of others. For Smith, however, finding the essence of character, getting beyond labels, is more than impersonation. It means listening not only to what people say, but how. When people are at a loss for words and must dig deep to express themselves, she says, their broken grammar and faltering phrases betray who they really are. In her plays, Smith seeks to capture that moment in language when people become their true selves.

Her paternal grandfather's favorite saying--"If you say a word often enough, it becomes you"--planted the seed for this theatrical technique, but Smith didn't grow up dreaming she'd be an actress. The eldest of four children born to a schoolteacher mother and an entrepreneurial father, she was raised in a religious Baltimore community where "lying" actors and their make-believe were considered as sinful as streetwalkers. Yet the early 1970s found Smith at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco trying to understand the national dramas of the previous decade: the murders of Malcolm X and Martin, black-bereted Panthers, bra burnings, anti-Vietnam protests, Woodstock. Had those movements been mere street theater, some trendy revolutionary chic, or true visions of "we the people"?

Smith came to believe that, in theater, Americans of every hue could be in conversation together, without having one viewpoint rule. By the 1990s, the "On the Road" project was tackling race relations as she applied her living-theater technique to the riot between blacks and Jews that erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991. Fires in the Mirror mesmerized audiences, as the actress morphed into scores of characters, bringing singular insight into this crisis through a kaleidoscope of voices.

Fires also hit a national nerve because of its uncanny timing. "That play was supposed to have its first performance [in New York] after the day of the Los Angeles riots," Smith says of the civil unrest that ensued when an all-white jury acquitted white police officers who'd been videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King. "The performance was canceled because everyone thought that New York"--still polarized by the Brooklyn riot--"was going to blow up." The show eventually went on, followed the next year by Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, her evenhanded treatment of the L.A. riots. In Twilight, she once again revealed redemptive human truths that personal prejudice and petty politics often obscure.

Smith's style of documentary theater normally requires footwork: travel, interviews and research, with trusty tape recorder in tow. But with Letters, she "was able to write from nay desk,' she says. "The biggest resource was me and my experience and things I already know, [not] people I quote at length or stuff that I acquired and then shaped. This is from the inside."

A Multitude of Influences

Indeed, the cultural identity Smith sheds of necessity in her plays emerges insistently in Letters. The book's premise of auctioning an artist of African descent provides a quick lesson on the African American slave past: "This is new for me," Smith writes. "I've never been auctioned before. (My ancestors were.)" To school BZ in the tools of the trade, she draws on insights from a litany of 20th-century black artists: painter Jacob Lawrence, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, hip-hop artist Common.

Smith maintains, however, that the many cultural references were inadvertent, and takes pains to note the non-black voices included here, such as painter Brice Marden, model Lauren Hutton and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "Somebody earlier today, another journalist, was quoting [Italian filmmaker Federico] Fellini to me as saying that all art is autobiographical," she says, displaying just how wide-ranging are the artistic legacies to which she stakes a claim. "You know, 'The oyster makes the pearl? We can't get away from ourselves, unfortunately. In my work, I'm always trying to jump to 'the other; but nonetheless, obviously, I've been saturated in an African American experience."

The almost grudging admission may well be a result of the actress's characteristic resistance to being pigeonholed, but ambivalence about her Baltimore roots perhaps factors in, as well. Practically straddling the Mason-Dixon Line, Baltimore was "not really South, not really North, kind of a limbo town" she says of its cultural ambiguity, of the poles of prejudice and possibility that defined her world. "At the time that I grew up, there were some opportunities for people to move out of their racial boundaries, not very many. I went to a very good public, all-girls high school where I was able to do that. [Otherwise] my childhood was confined to a black community."

Jim Crow politics surely contributed to this sense of restriction, though it's a conservative, tight-knit black community that Smith recalls. "[They were] conservative for good reason," she allows. "It was black people trying to make some kind of stability for their children so that they could move us into another class. I admire that aspiration. But at the same time, it was oddly inspirational in that it always gave me the feeling that I wanted to get out of that."

The impulse to escape a painful black past into an ever-upward mobility may have come at a cost. "My generation got stuck [in this celebrity culture[," she tells BZ. "Unstick us."

Smith's glare life underscores the point. The morning of the almost canceled interview, her accountant advised, "'Go to such and such a bank, [because] this banker handles this person and that person,' naming all these celebrities,'" she says, of which he knows she's become one. That society increasingly links celebrity and credibility troubles the actress, but she works to use her growing access for the larger good.

Circumnavigating Known Worlds

Her latest project, writing the screenplay for Edward P. Jones's novel The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2003), evolved out of her Tinseltown connections. After reading the story about the rare but true phenomenon of a slaveholding black family, Smith sensed that Jones's imagination, which she compares to Shakespeare's, had "Pulitzer Prize" written all over it. At her savvy suggestion, the John Wells Group, producers Smith met through her roles on The West Wing and Presidio Med, optioned it.

After the novel did in fact win a Pulitzer, Smith spent last fall adapting it for the big screen. Once Hollywood green-lights the still-in-progress script, the movie, she anticipates, will illuminate, like little else in popular culture, how slavery still defines not only contemporary America, but also black America in particular. "Things I didn't realize have roots have roots," she says of the eerie resemblance between Jones's depiction of black slave owners and the conservative black Baltimore of her childhood.

Critics have often noted that a story about black complicity in black oppression is often an award-winning formula. For Smith, acknowledging the existence of a black slave-owning class doesn't negate the reality of racism. Rather, it takes African Americans "out of that complete victim paradigm" she says.

That theme intersects with Letters's most urgent message to upcoming generations: "The Man has the power, but so do you."

Consider the proverbial torch passed.

Books by Anna Deavere Smith Fires in the Mirror, Anchor, September 1993 $12.95, ISBN 0-385-47014-2

House Arrest and Piano: Two Plays, Anchor, April 2004 $13, ISBN 1-400-03357-8

Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts--For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind, Anchor, January 2006, $13, ISBN 1-400-03238-5

Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, Random House October 2000, $24.95, ISBN 0-375-50150-9 (The paperback was

Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics, Anchor, October 2001 $14, ISBN 0-385-72174-9)

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Anchor, March 1994 $14.95, ISBN 0-385-47376-1

Angela Ards is a writer and PhD. candidate in literature and African American Studies at Princeton University.
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Author:Ards, Angela
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:2179
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