In times of war (check), political and economic upheaval(check), and social tension (check), artists are in a unique position to stoke democracy and to put pressure on the state, or, as the case may be, the banks, the corporations, "the man", etc. "In my experience, when things are upside down," actress and writer Anna Deavere Smith said in a PBS interview in 2006, "there's an opening for a person like me. I think when things fall apart, [as an artist] you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together."
Since setting out for California in the early 1970s, Smith has conducted thousands of interviews with people all over the United States. She has said, "I wanted, in the words of Walt Whitman, to absorb America, and to have America absorb me." She has interviewed people on every side of the culture war and has used their words in her plays to examine how language can serve as a bridge between groups instead of a divider. While her work highlights an incredibly broad and diverse spectrum of American characters, two of her most famous plays, 1991's Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and 1992's Twilight: Los Angeles, deal with specific historical events. Fires in the Mirror addresses the violence that erupted in the Brooklyn neighorhood between blacks and Hassidic Jews, while Twilight tackles the Rodney King race riots. These subjects aren't light, but Smith succeeds in exposing humanity through the characters' words, and more importantly through her dramatic interpretation of those words.
In an interview with Terry Gross in 2000, Smith explained her process of interviewing and then turning the interview into a play and performance. She will listen to the interview over and over again, getting every breath, sentence filler, and inflection just right, and she has said that she actually learns more about her subjects during this time of being alone with their words than she does in the actual interview. When asked why she thinks sentence delivery is as important a part of language as words, Smith responded, "Character is not in the perfect sentence. ...We believe that people are just the way they move across the page--as if we all finish our sentences perfectly."
Smith's art is as much about listening as it is about performing, and listening is something she says we could all do more of. "I think we need to get off of where we just know everything," she said in her 2006 PBS interview, "and think about becoming more resilient about what we don't know, and getting better at asking questions, and having fewer answers." Smith's life has taken her to the intersections of ambiguity, she told Terry Gross in her 2000 interview. She argues that the "big explosion, that orgy [of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s]" has been managed in a way that it's created a sort of mini segregation. Using college campuses as an example, she says that there are still the black students hanging out in one place, a Hillel House in another, and the women's studies program over there, and that the next stage of identity politics is going to be mixing it all up somehow. She doesn't have the answers for how to make this happen, but I have a feeling that injecting more art like Ms. Smith's into our culture could push us there.