Making right from wrongs

Theater: Anna Deavere Smith's plays keep trying to pull those round pegs from the round holes.

February 10, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Actress, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith has a deep affection for what she calls "misfit theater."

She means it as a compliment. It's a term she applies to plays she first saw as a girl growing up in Baltimore. At Arena Players, she would see black actors cast in traditionally white roles. And although she went to Western High School, she often attended all-girl plays at Roland Park Country School, where her best friend was a student.

"Those two things were my experience of what theater was. I always thought theater was when the wrong person played the wrong role -- misfit theater," Smith said. She will deliver the annual Anne Healy Lecture at Roland Park Country School tonight, and tomorrow morning, Smith will lead a workshop for the school's advanced drama students.

"Misfit theater" made a lasting impact on Smith, much of whose career has been spent portraying real-life characters as far removed from her own experience as Hasidic rabbis, gang leaders in South Central Los Angeles and, on rare occasions, President Clinton.

Although she precisely re-creates the vocal patterns of her subjects, Smith, 48, is not a mimic. She's one of a kind, or, more accurately, one of many kinds. Her continuing series, "On the Road: A Search for American Character," has included one-woman shows, such as "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," in which she depicts entire communities.

Her current project, "House Arrest," about the press and the presidency, features a full cast, trained in her technique. The show's original incarnation, "House Arrest: First Edition," debuted at Washington's Arena Stage in November 1997.

Smith will include some characters from "House Arrest" in her Roland Park lecture, which is titled "Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change." A talk she has presented around the country for several years, it begins with a discussion of how she works and "is sprinkled with pieces from different plays that I have done," she explained in a phone conversation from San Francisco, where she is currently on leave from Stanford University.

She is also considering incorporating parts of another speech, "Safe as Houses," a phrase that refers to "niches of identity" in which people tend to compartmentalize themselves. "That seems to be our instinct even when given an opportunity, such as we were after the '60s, to move from those niches," Smith explained. "We went from segregation to integration. It seems to me the variety of people who came forward got managed into niches."

Helping people break out of niches has long been one of Smith's goals. Her latest effort is the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, which she founded at Harvard University last summer with funding from the Ford Foundation. "The whole goal of the institute is to ask people to move -- to move from that safe place to another place," she said. "There are real obvious ways that artists, scholars and activists have something to gain from each other."

As part of last summer's institute, she held a nine-day workshop of "House Arrest," during which she eliminated the play-within-a-play format the show had at Arena Stage. Instead, she presented a 90-minute show, followed by a session with the audience. "It's a little different from the traditional post-play discussion," she said. "I really consider the audience part a major part of the event."

In April, she will continue this approach at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, where she recently decided to abbreviate the scheduled engagement of "House Arrest" in favor of a developmental work-in-progress.

" `House Arrest' has been the most complicated thing I've ever done," she said. "Every time I sit down to rewrite, things change." Smith recently spent a day at the impeachment hearings, attended the State of the Union address and even accompanied a member of Congress to the White House Christmas party. But for the most part, she said, "I haven't done more interviews. I don't have unlimited resources."

She is, however, working on a book for Random House about her experiences with "House Arrest." She's not sure when the book will be completed. First, she hopes to film "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" for PBS.

One thing that hasn't changed about "House Arrest" is the discovery she made when she arrived in Washington four years ago to begin research on this latest chapter of her "On the Road" series. "I went to Washington in 1995 just because, in terms of intellectual honesty, I couldn't only dwell in the marginal community, giving voice to the unheard," she said.

"The first stop I felt I really had to make was right to what would be considered the center of American identity. What I found at that time was that Washington and the Washington press are an extraordinary marginal community."

If trying to make a theater piece out of her discoveries in Washington has been an involved process, Smith has come to realize it's a process that suits the subject matter.

"What I'm doing doesn't fit into a neat niche, but it means I'm having to ride this wave of reality," she said. "The question is, what does that give me, and what does it take away? I don't know the answer, but I certainly have been committed to throwing myself into the sea of this."

All tickets to Smith's talk at Roland Park Country School have been reserved, and there is an extensive waiting list. For information, call 410-323-5500.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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