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.