Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The limits of Anna Deavere Smith

I've taken my time writing about Let Me Down Easy (above), the new "play in evolution" by Anna Deavere Smith which just closed at the ART (making this article a post-mortem of sorts).

I did this because I knew the show would be a box office success, as Smith has long since jumped into NPR-celebrity territory, and people who wouldn't normally be caught dead in a theatre would come to bask in the reflected glow of someone their friends had all heard of. So there was no reason to hype it, and frankly, there wasn't a glaring reason to criticize it, either - in purely theatrical terms, Smith was once again powerfully affecting in many of the vignettes she performed, which were loosely grouped around the theme of "grace."

But there are lessons, perhaps, which should have sunk in by now about Ms. Smith and the "verbatim theatre" which she all but created with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles. Many reviewers did note that Let Me Down Easy was amorphous in theme and unfocused in attack: this time, rather than presenting a collage of viewpoints on a single event, Ms. Smith literally rambled the globe for musings on "grace," which she defined (with truly impressive broadness) as anything that transcended the body and its vulnerability. But while they were dissatisfied with Easy in its specifics, few critics pondered the artistic problems and limits of "verbatim theatre" that the piece clearly limned. By way of contrast, as I watched Let Me Down Easy, I was often deeply touched by the stories Ms. Smith told; but I also found myself pondering what her performance said about the form she had created (particularly given the popularity of that form today). In short - what are the strengths and weaknesses of "verbatim theatre"? What can it do, and what can it not do?

First, a few words about the strange way in which the form has come to be perceived - many seem to believe that "verbatim theatre" actually conjures physical presences onstage. But close attention to these performances reveals a very different reality. For instance, Anna Deavere Smith is not, to be honest, all that accomplished an impressionist; her voice can be powerful, but is neither particularly flexible nor well-trained, and her physical gifts as a stage performer are merely adequate. She only intermittently creates a genuine impersonation onstage (in Let Me Down Easy, for example, she manages pretty well with Ann Richards, but her attempt to channel the more imposing Jessye Norman is unconvincing).

But then the great advantage of the form Smith created was the way it allowed her to transcend these limits by treating the utterances of her subjects as "text." Smith side-stepped the issue of impersonation by emphasizing that what she was doing was re-creating, on stage, the delivery of a particular speech - complete with every stammer and hesitation - rather than a particular person. This gave her performances a curiously haunting, post-modern quality: her speakers were both present and absent onstage - it was their perspective, rather than their person, which Smith was, in effect, "curating" into a kind of theatrical exhibit.

I've spoken before about the growing influence of curatorial, rather than artistic, action on the cultural scene; indeed, it's getting harder and harder to find artwork that hasn't been "pre-curated," as it were, to a high degree. In retrospect, it seems clear that Smith was an early avatar of this trend. In our self-consciously diverse cultural landscape, in which the individual political perspective of the artist has become suspect, Smith offered a clever technique for sidestepping ownership of political content while simultaneously insinuating it (many of the Lubavitchers depicted in Fires in the Mirror found her treatment of them condescending and simplistic, for instance). Make no mistake, Smith's early pieces on race were complex, thoughtful performances - still, they proferred a certain liberal consensus rather than any singular, disturbing perspective (and to be blunt, the Lubavitchers are outside that liberal consensus). Likewise, while her techniques were perfectly tailored to evoking a communal response, they offered little in the way of deep individual vision - a gap all the more obvious (and problematic) in Let Me Down Easy.

Smith opened Easy with an ironic preamble about the origins of the song "Amazing Grace" (it was written by a repentant slave trader, and was drawn, many believe, from songs sung by his captives). I wondered if once again the problem of American racism would figure prominently in the piece, particularly in the context of liberal eagerness for self-forgiveness. But no sooner were the themes of forgiveness and sin laid out than they were not so much abandoned as extrapolated wildly. Smith touched down in the cruelties of horse racing, then did pit-stops in the insanity of both Iraq and the Rwandan genocide, then flitted through the topics of gardening and Buddhism, before settling for an extended stay in the inadequacies of the American health care system. The evening was rather like a guided tour of the grants she'd received over the last decade or so - and while many of the individual pieces were piercing (and even profound), their wild variegation didn't so much illuminate the meaning of "grace" as beat it down into a vague, common-denominator concept.

And this was because, in the end, Ms. Smith is not really a playwright, and Let Me Down Easy isn't really a play. One can, it seems, brilliantly curate the responses of a community to a traumatic event; one can't, however, perhaps curate a "theme" - there's no real consensus to be evoked on the subject of "grace," for instance, but only individual response, which a good play could serve to reveal through character and narrative. But while one could imagine many of the stories Smith told serving as riveting scenes in a larger frame, we left the theatre with no idea what said frame could or should be. Thus the play is constantly "in evolution" (and has been so for months, if not years) - but I think "stasis" is a better description of it; touching as it may be, it's hard to imagine how it could ever come together into a coherent statement.


  1. Nice post about the limits of verbatim theatre.

    You put your finger on some things I was trying to figure out when I reviewed Marc Wolf's The Long Road.

    The more tightly focused and communal the subject, the more powerful, it seems, these types of projects become.

    Wolf's Another American is fantastic, but The Long Road, which was snapshots from his long drive across the country in the days after 9/11, had that kind of hazy disconnectedness you are suggesting here.

    However, The Long Road, did begin to take shape the closer Wolf got to Ground Zero.

    But, as you suggest here, the idea of this LARGER THEME of 9/11 and what it means to Americans may be just too much for the form.

    A solution, for the form,could be for the artist to play up their struggle with not only the interview subjects, but the theme themselves.

    I am not sure you would consider I Am My Own Wife in the category of verbatim theatre, but Doug Wright seemed to have solved a big problem with the play by bringing himself in as a character. His struggle with the protaganist's stasi past provided an excellent third act to the structure.

    But then again, Wright IS a playwright.

    Another step in examining verbatim theatre is looking at what happens once the work leaves the hands of its original creators.

    The Laramie Project is done around the world, as are Deveare Smith's Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, Los Angeles.

  2. Hi Art -

    Your points about I Am My Own Wife are interesting, but I'm not sure they constitute a solution to the form's limits - indeed, they may undermine the form instead (or at least undermine its artistic seriousness). I'm under the impression time has not been kind to Wright's conceit concerning the "unknowability" of his protagonist's guilt; and doesn't the form in general depend on our trusting the veracity of what is being said? Indeed, I Am My Own Wife may be interesting in that it underscores the essentially political nature of verbatim theatre: our unconscious desire to sympathize, as good liberals, with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's sexuality and resistance to the Nazis somehow trumps our nettlesome awareness that she probably amassed her antique collection by selling people out to the stasi. In the same way, Fires in the Mirror subtly implies that the refusal by the Lubavitcher ambulance to transport the injured black child was somehow equivalent to the later mob lynching of Yankel Rosenbaum; obviously the two cases are not morally equivalent, but Anna Deavere Smith somehow leads people into believing they were. Wright likewise teases his audience into a certain suspension of disbelief about Charlotte, even though she probably sent many innocent people to their deaths. Maybe this "verbatim" theatre is a bit more dangerous than is generally believed; it's an intriguingly easy way to get the culture to accept as "true" something which could more accurately be construed as fiction.

  3. I think I would agree with you that curating a piece on "grace" is a difficult task. I recently saw the show at Second Stage where it had honed itself into a dialogue on the body and it's limitations and triumphs, to loosely quote Ms. Smith. It was a stronger piece than the one you saw. It was at times strange (the Lauren Hutton vignette was truly weird but spoke to the issue of "access" in the health care system). And it worked it's way to the conclusion of death.
    Moving and thought-provoking yes. But I agree that it is probably not going to create any kind of revolution in the health care industry or in the way every day people treat each other. It will, however, make for interesting cocktail party discussion.