Social unrest fuels actress' solo shows

April 25, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When the New York debut of her one-woman show, "Fires in the Mirror," was postponed on April 29, 1992, Anna Deavere Smith didn't know that the reason for the postponement would be the genesis of her next show, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."

That was the night four police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King. Riots broke out in south central Los Angeles, and )) aftershocks were feared as far away as New York.

"Fires in the Mirror" -- subtitled "Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities" -- went on to win national acclaim for Smith, a Baltimore-born actress, playwright and professor.

"Twilight," which opened at New York's Public Theater in March and transferred to Broadway eight days ago, has increased that acclaim.

Wrote Variety: "With 'Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,' Anna Deavere Smith confirms her status as a premiere force in American theater."

"Anna Deavere Smith is the ultimate impressionist: she does people's souls," added the New York Times.

The Times quote refers to the distinctive nature of Smith's work. "Fires" and "Twilight" -- part of a series she calls "On the Road: A Search for American Character" -- are anthologies of verbatim interviews Smith conducts with people directly and indirectly involved in various events. She then listens to the tape-recorded interviews over and over again until she can precisely reproduce the subjects' speech patterns on stage.

Explaining how her work on "Twilight" differed from "Fires," which focused on the frictions between black and Jewish communities, Smith says: "The real challenge for me was broadening my own scope about race in America because, having grown up in Baltimore, it was mostly a black and white perspective I had. So I had quite a lot to do to try and begin to broaden my canvas."

"Twilight" isn't the only project Smith, 43, has completed since "Fires" debuted. She also played small roles in two movies, "Dave" and "Philadelphia"; she collaborated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on a 35th anniversary piece called "Hymn"; she was promoted to full professor at Stanford University, which named her the Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts; and both "Fires" and "Twilight" were released in book form.

Her schedule shows no sign of waning. There's an hourlong American Public Radio broadcast called "Reflections on Los Angeles" scheduled to air nationally between April 29 and May 3; a tour of "Twilight" after its 16-week limited Broadway run; and a possible Center Stage engagement of "Fires in the Mirror."

Earlier this month, Smith postponed an appearance at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

She now expects to come to UMBC in the fall, when she will introduce and screen the 1993 PBS broadcast of "Fires."

If Center Stage works out, it will be her first professional performance in her home town. The last time she appeared on stage here was in the 1960s, when she was a student at Western High School.

Irene Lewis, artistic director of Center Stage, says she'd like to have Smith perform "Fires in the Mirror" here instead of the more recent "Twilight" because "I think ['Fires'] has much bigger reverberations for our community."

Lewis, who saw "Fires" in New York, was impressed by the fact that it was "a very large topic and one I was keenly interested in" as well as "extraordinarily contemporary." She describes Smith as "a major talent and extremely gifted at both the interviewing and the distilling of the interviews and then taking on the characters that are in her pieces . . . [She] gave the audience room to think about what she was doing and to experience it without heavy editorializing."

Asked if she agrees that "Fires" has more relevancy for a local audience, Smith says her background growing up in Baltimore "was very, very mixed with a Jewish culture. And so if Baltimore is still like that, I would say, yes, there would be more reverberations. But even in the time I was in high school, much of the Jewish community was moving out to the counties, whereas the neighborhood my parents live in [Forest Park] is now all black."

Unlike "Fires," which was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, "Twilight" was dismissed by this year's Pulitzer committee. According to the New York Times, this decision was due in part to the feeling that "the show cannot be reproduced by someone else because another performer would not have done the original interviews and thus would not be re-creating the real-life characters."

Smith strongly denies this. "The way it was reported in the Times, the committee misunderstood my work," she insists. "There was this reporting in the Times that my work cannot be done by other people. In fact, ['Fires'] just finished being done in Minneapolis. I wish some little elementary school in Baltimore would do my work."

Is there any possibility of a future "On the Road" show about her hometown? "It's not out of the question," she says. "I haven't thought about it too much. Everything I do is so much about me being the person who doesn't belong there. So much of what my theme is, is being on the road, not belonging, looking in. But I guess I've been away from Baltimore long enough, you could say I'm on the outside."

That won't be her next project, though. Instead, she's planning to write her first screenplay, whose subject she prefers not to reveal at this early stage.

She admits, however, that she is looking forward to taking a break from her "On the Road" series. "I am tired of it for now," Smith says. "It's so labor-intensive. It's very hard, hard, hard work."

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