Homeward Bound

Long Departed From Her Native Baltimore, Playwright And Actress Anna Deavere Smith Is Ready To Explore Her Beginnings

August 23, 2009|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

New York - The playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith left Baltimore in the late 1960s - though such a meek little verb is hardly adequate to describe an act so urgent and impassioned, so freighted with family turmoil.

She's barely been back to her hometown since, though she's starting to think that it's time she returned. Not for good, but long enough to look for answers to the questions rustling through her mind.

"After this play, one of the first things I'd like to do is go back to Maryland," she says, during a chat in a rehearsal room of Manhattan's Second Stage Theatre, where she's preparing her new play.

"After I left Baltimore, I made a very conscious decision not to go home. Extraordinary things happened during my girlhood and adolescence, some of which my

parents protected me from. I'm interested in the history of Maryland, which was both a southern state and a northern state. I don't know how slavery worked there."

Just the other day, she found out quite by accident - from, of all things, a poster in a New York subway - that she might be related to a conductor on the Underground Railroad who, like Smith's uncle, was named Basil Biggs.

"When I was a child, I loved talking to older people, in particular to my paternal grandfather, and to a neighborhood woman who weighed about 500 pounds and couldn't leave her house," she says. "They told me stories about Baltimore, about Maryland, about my roots."

When Smith left home for college, she began a peripatetic existence that continues to this day. She wrote award-winning solo shows about riots in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, which earned her a 1996 MacArthur "genius" grant. More recently, the 58-year-old artist has been hanging out at a television studio in California, portraying a stuffy hospital administrator opposite Edie Falco on Showtime's "Nurse Jackie."

For Smith's newest play, "Let Me Down Easy," which opens next month in New York, she traveled to Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa and across the U.S. The work is about people struggling against their physical limitations, and Smith gathered more than 300 firsthand accounts from such figures as cyclist Lance Armstrong, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and a rodeo cowboy with a seemingly superhuman tolerance for pain.

But Smith says the piece first began to coalesce in a Baltimore hospital room.

"I've been working on the show for eight years," she says, "but my thinking became more profound around the time my mother died at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2003. I began thinking about powerful bodies and vulnerable bodies and, inevitably, about mortality. All of life has an expiration date. What do we do in the face of that? What do we make of our lives, given their brevity, precipitousness and speed?"

Smith's own physical self creates the illusion that she's more yielding than she is. She has round curls, round cheeks and round fingertips. A splash of round freckles spills across her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. The artist isn't at all hard, but she is definite, like the edge of a ruler, or the two points of a mathematical compass.

If you've only seen Smith in the movies or on television - in films directed by Jonathan Demme, or in a recurring role on "The West Wing" - you might not realize just how skilled a storyteller she is. In roles written by other people, she's consistently enjoyable. But in the roles she writes for herself, she's nothing short of galvanizing. All the different parts of herself - the thinker concerned with social justice, the playwright and the performer - come together in a controlled explosion.

"Anna is drawn to stories about weak people and strong people, and how the weak become strong," says Daryl Roth, a theatrical producer who has staged two of Smith's plays. "She holds up a mirror to the individuals she's studying, and she goes into a deep, deep place."

On stage, Smith has a wry sense of humor that is never allowed to slip over into parody. She is honoring the folks she depicts, and she thinks the way to do that is to capture their quirks without mocking them.

"Anna listens better than anyone I've ever met in my life," David Chalian says. "In the cadences and pauses of her interview subjects, she finds such rich, character-revealing information."

Chalian, political director of ABC News, worked for Smith for three years in the late 1990s. He was struck by her fidelity to the verbal rhythms of the people she interviewed, down to their stutters and hesitations. "Anna thinks that from someone's exact words comes their character," he says.

This is not to say that everyone whom Smith re-creates on stage is likable. One of her spookiest impersonations is of Paulette Jenkins, the Baltimore woman who in 1986 admitted helping her boyfriend cover up the murder of her 9-year-old daughter.

Smith interviewed Jenkins in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. That night, Smith had a nightmare that she had become infected with mumps while in the pool.

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