Smith's Skill as a Performer of Her Own Material
On January 27, 1997, at the New York Town Hall, Anna Deavere Smith moderated a debate between playwright August Wilson and theater pundit Robert Brustein over Wilson's position that black American playwrights should work within a theater exclusively devoted to black culture. Wilson had taken particular umbrage with the practice of "color-blind-casting," especially as it pertains to casting black actors in “white'' plays. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Wilson's view, "for a black actor to walk the stage of Western drama was to collaborate with the culture of racism," to demean, and to rob the actor of his or her true and distinct identity.
Whether or not Wilson is in some ways "an unlikely spokesman for a new Black Arts movement," as Gates maintains, he has championed a view that seems diametrically opposed to what Smith practices in her multi-cultural, mimetic art. Described by Sharon Fitzgerald as "Anna of a thousand faces," Smith dons the character of her interviewed subjects without a nanosecond's regard for the politically-correct idea that actors should portray only what their birthright entitles them to portray. In her one-woman performances of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, she has impersonated an imposing array of real people of different color, sex, national origin, socioeconomic class, political complexion, and age—shedding and donning character guises like a human chameleon.
Her purpose, too, seems antithetical to what Wilson preaches. As Lauren Feldman argues, "Smith inspires us to scrutinize common constructions of race, our own complicity in the events that continue to shape American race relations, and the role of the arts in reproducing or deconstructing social stereotypes." Thus, in searching for the American character, Smith has elected to deal with actual people at critical junctures in their lives, when their identities and even their lives are at risk. Moreover, she maintains that if American theater is to "mirror society'' honestly, it “must embrace diversity.'' To that end, she crowds her dramatic canvass with portraits of diverse people caught in moments of reflection on an emotionally charged and violent set of real events. Hers is an assimilative aim, to synthesize such diverse voices into a "more complex language" which "our race dialogue desperately needs." In contrast, Wilson's separatist aim seems completely inimical to such a race dialogue.
The niggling question is whether that more complex language is inherent in the text of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 or in the artistry of Smith as actress—or whether, indeed, the two can ever be separated. She has been credited with silencing "all the questions about racial identity in race-specific plays." For William Sun and Faye Fei, Smith has evolved "a unique genre" that allows her to pirouette convincingly through her characterizations without benefit of masks or makeup. Her range is simply extraordinary, covering a "full spectrum that runs between opposite racial, political, and ideological poles." In one moment, she is a white, middle-aged male, such as former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates; in the next, through a "morphing" of her face, gestures, posture, and, most of all, her voice, she becomes a female, like Elvira Edwards, the young Panamanian mother, or Elaine Brown, the over-fifty, former head of the Black Panther Party. Then, in a wink of the eye, she is a man again, but this time a proud and angry man, like Mexican-American artist, Rudy Salas, or the old Korean immigrant, Chung Lee, who can only speak in his native tongue. While a backdrop video screen provides footage of the Los Angeles rioting and beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, the remarkable metamorphoses themselves are usually aided with only the barest theatrical amenities: slide projections identifying each character by a caption, name and, brief identifier; some minimal adjustments in stage and hand properties; and some slight costume changes, usually involving only one or two...
(The entire section is 3,398 words.)