The 'Fires' this Time Actress crosses boundaries using distinct voices

July 19, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

New York -- In a voice as vibrant and intense as the incandescent orange of her blouse, Anna Deavere Smith says the words that could be her credo: "I believe that nobody speaks like anybody else."

It is a rare treat to hear her own voice speaking her own words. The Baltimore-born actress, playwright and professor has built a reputation speaking the words and reproducing the speech patterns of others. These days she is best known for re-creating the voices of 26 people she interviewed for her one-woman show, "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," based on the riots that erupted a year ago after a 7-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a runaway car from the motorcade of a Hasidic rabbi.

In portraying her cast of real-life characters, Smith crosses boundaries of color, gender, age and religion. In one scene she is the Rev. Al Sharpton, in the next, a Hasidic housewife. She differentiates between them with minor changes in costume -- adding or subtracting a hat or a jacket -- and major changes in body language and vocal inflections.

The result is one of the hottest tickets of the season, an Obie Award-winning New York Shakespeare Festival production that has been extended twice, transferred to a larger theater within the Joseph Papp Public Theater complex and is under consideration for a 1993 tour.

The New York Post wrote, "In 90 minutes on stage, Smith tells us more than we learned from months of news reports about what really happened in Brooklyn on Aug. 19, 1991." PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" devoted a half hour to the show. And the New York Times suggested Smith run for office.

On this particular morning Smith, 41, has already spent a couple of hours with several of the theater's board members; in the afternoon she will meet with Fortune magazine and participate in a round-table discussion on race for New York's WCBS-TV. But at the moment, she is intent on talking about the spoken word and what its use reveals about people.

"My grandfather, who was a big influence in my life, had told me, 'If you say a word often enough, it becomes you,' " she says, referring to the late Deaver Smith, a tea and coffee merchant who founded one of the first black-owned businesses on Pennsylvania Avenue back in 1906. (Her father and brother still run the business, Smith Coffee & Tea Co., which has since moved to northwest Baltimore.)

Her grandfather's wisdom is seminal not only to "Fires in the Mirror," but also to the larger series of works to which it belongs -- an ongoing project called "On the Road: A Search for American Character." Begun nearly a decade ago, "On the Road" now includes about a dozen similarly structured anthology pieces on subjects ranging from gender to black identity to intercultural performance.

Smith, who is on leave from Stanford University, where she is an associate professor of drama, explains, "I really started this project as a way of teaching acting because the way that I had been trained was a way of using the self as the predominant and major resource for constructing and imagining character and that bothered me politically and socially . . . I wanted a classroom that was more other-oriented."

At the time, she made an informal study of talk shows and noticed that there was often a revealing moment signaled by the breakdown of syntax. "Character," she began to suspect, "lives in the rhythm of speech, the way that words are manipulated."

With this in mind, she armed herself with a tape recorder and started conducting man-on-the-street interviews, asking three questions recommended by a linguist: Have you ever come close to death? Do you remember your first day of school? And, could you tell me about the circumstances of your birth?

And sure enough, when she gave the results to her students, they discovered "an accurate pic- ture could be made simply by repeating the rhythms of the speech."

It was hardly an unexpected discovery for Smith, who has been an excellent mimic since childhood, according to her mother, Mrs. Deaver Y. Smith, who retired as principal of Liberty Elementary School in 1982, after 41 years with the Baltimore City schools. "From the time she was just a little girl," her mother recalls, "if I would read to her she would give the same story back even though she wasn't really reading and [use] whatever expression I had used."

Perfecting a talent

She perfected this talent to the point where, her mother says, "we used to say to people, if you don't want to see yourself sometimes written up, you'd better not do or say what you're doing in front of her."

Smith acknowledges that this can be a social liability. "[I'm] this kind of person who, I guess in a way, you shouldn't trust at a cocktail party," she jokes.

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