Anna Deavere Smith: “Shine a Light Through Broken Hearts”

Matthew Sprung, Staff Writer

Award-winning actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith spoke and performed in front of a full Finney Chapel as part of Oberlin College’s annual Convocation series last Saturday, Oct. 6. Best known for her one-woman plays Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, both of which she wrote and starred in, Smith crafts material strictly from personally conducted interviews that illuminate social and political issues in America.

Having recently broken her toe, Ms. Smith apologized for her footwear, but joked that she felt “right at home at Oberlin in Birkenstocks.” She went on to portray the characters and people she has interviewed, transcending the stage with her commanding and authentic performance.

Fires in the Mirror focuses on the viewpoints of members of the black and Jewish communities during the Crown Heights, Brooklyn, crisis of 1991. After providing some context, Smith would announce specific characters she was about to perform and dive straight into a different skin. While her appearance didn’t change, her voice, movement and other precise subtleties effectively captured the essence of the characters she performed. A Jewish grandmother rambled on in a high-pitched, insistent whine about her inability to turn off a loud radio on Shabbat, exemplifying Smith’s ability to provide humorous and personal perspectives within difficult situations like the high-tension climate of Crown Heights in 1991. She then abruptly became a rabbi with a hurried and animated speech that denied interruption. She fervently delivered her characters, captivating the audience and enabling an unavoidable absorption into specific worlds.

In her preparation for a play, Smith does extensive research on events and conducts thousands of interviews all around the world. As a part of her attempt to portray characters with integrity, Smith visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Aaron M. Bernstein to ask about the physical properties of mirror distortions. Instead of focusing on similarities and connections between people, Ms. Smith declared that she was “interested in our differences, not the universal” and that it is within these differences that some truth may be discovered.

Searching for what she described as the “not-not” state — that is, the area in between herself and her interviewees and potential characters — Smith acknowledged the impossibility of totally leaving her self while portraying someone else. Yet in casting a broad scope around her characters, Smith has found a productive method of presenting a more comprehensible character without a narrowing vice.

A natural-born storyteller, Smith told the audience that “an actor’s greatest gift is their imagination.” Speaking of her experience of repeating a word until it breaks down, Smith emphasized the subsequent ability to fully possess that word, saying, “When you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” As a college student in San Francisco, Smith discovered the purposeful capacity of speech. Encouraged by her grandmother to become an actor, she was determined to use her voice as a tool, “to dare, to challenge.”

Another character who captivated the audience was a Republican bull rider from Texas named Brent. Besides a flawless accent, Smith incarnated Brent through a synthesis of movement and personality that communicated not only the immediacy of the interview, but also the essence of the character, filling Finney Chapel with an encompassing atmosphere of honesty and belief. Capturing and generating such a vivid and continuous syntax and synthesis of her characters, seemed Smith was not so much to be portraying her characters as embodying them.

“In bringing my tape recorder to bad places, within the woes and broken hearts, I will hear remarkable creativity as a person struggles to bring back dignity through their words and by trying to make an upside-down world right-side up,” Smith explained. Throughout her career, she has made it her goal to “show the light that shines through broken hearts,” because in learning about the wounds of others, we may be able to offer hope for them to keep moving forward. Smith compellingly and forcefully brings the wounds and wounded of the world to light on stage. In one stretch she conducted 300 interviews spanning three continents, one of which landed her at the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In her last and most powerful character, Smith told an account through Judy, who ran the orphanage for children diagnosed with AIDS. The story and performance, which was about a 12-year-old girl who was brought to Judy after being found in a dumpster as a baby, presented remarkably authentic emotion. In a South African accent that was soft yet strong, Smith enabled Judy and a reality of suffering to transcend continents and exist onstage through her sympathy and compassion. The girl knew she was going to die, and told Judy her mother was coming to get her. Her mother had died some years ago, yet Judy understood what she meant, claiming it was “not bad; the girl was prepared.” Judy helped the girl pack her suitcase, and she died overnight. Judy insisted she must move forward, emphasizing the importance of “not leav[ing] them in the dark.” The children would ask her, “Can we come back to Chance Orphanage?” To which Judy responded, “You are always in my heart; you are always with me.”

Smith’s depiction of people had a surprisingly true and resonant grace about it. It is that grace that makes her seem destined to use the stage to shine an optimistic light on the world’s broken hearts.