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Harpur Forum’s annual dinner held on June 4

By : Gary E. Frank

She didn’t coin the phrase, but in a era marked by highly partisan divisions along racial, ethnic and religious fault lines Anna Deavere Smith freely admits to being a “prisoner of hope.”

“I’ve looked at the evidence, and some of it doesn’t look good at all,” Smith said at the Harpur Forum’s annual dinner on June 4. “But what I’m trying to do in my work is to suggest to people that there are things we can do.”

Although billed as the featured speaker, Smith’s presentation was more akin to performance art than a traditional speech. Instead, the actress, playwright and college professor performed snippets from her plays Fires in the Mirror, which explores the 1991 race riot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn; Twilight, a examination of the civil unrest in the wake of the Rodney King verdict; and House Arrest, which looks at the mythic role of the presidency in American history. The plays comprise a body of theatrical works Smith calls ON THE ROAD: A Search for American Character, which have been described as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, intimate reverie.”

“My grandfather told me when I was a little girl that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you,” explained Smith. “What I’ve been doing is going around the country with a tape recorder with the idea that I could get people to talk to me, and if I said their words over and over again, that I could become them. So, in putting together this tapestry of many Americans, I could ‘become America.’”

Although most of her work speaks to racial and ethnic issues, Smith said that wasn’t her intent when she started interviewing various Americans around 1979.

“I thought I’d be going around the country talking to bull riders, cowboys, pig farmers, trout fishermen, stuff like that,” she said. “But soon my work got to be known for having to do with race relations.”

Taking on the words, voices and idiosyncrasies of each character, the pieces of the American “tapestry” performed by Smith encompassed both the famous and obscure. There were the rapid fire octogenarian musings of the writer Studs Terkel, journalist Charlayne Hunter Gault’s harrowing memories of a riot when she became the first African American to enroll at the University of Georgia, two historians arguing over Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, and a debate between the writer James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. Smith also gave voice to a Jewish woman from Crown Heights attempting to cope with the strictures of religious custom, a precocious child, and a stereo blaring polka music at full volume, an African American woman juror’s recollection of jury deliberations during the federal trial of the police accused of beating Rodney King, and an oft-injured daredevil bull rider named Brent Williams.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08