The real listener of the Americans– Anna Deavere Smith

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Famous playwright, actor, and educator, Anna Deavere Smith, brought her performance to Colwell Playhouse at Krannert Center on Tuesday, February 18. She was praised for creating ” a new form of theatre– a blend of art, social commentary, and journalism.”

Written by Bingchen Li

If you ask me, what is the last show I will watch before I die, I will definitely answer Anna Deavere Smith’s performance. During her performance, she does not have fancy costumes, props, and other performers, what she uses for the performance, is her voice. She interviewed different people first, and then recorded them and turned the conversations into performance, by herself. It is amazing that she can imitate those people perfectly that you can clearly know the emotional condition of the character, the age of the character, and the views from the characters.

No fancy props and stage setting in her performance

Unique Style of Performance

The MacArthur Foundation honored her with the “Genius” Fellowship for creating “a new form of theatre– a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reverie. ” It is really unique that her performance is neither a news report nor a stand-up comedy, but she could tell the truth in a humorous way. She is not talking about vulgar jokes, instead, she tries to express the opinions of other Americans over some social issues. She said that she has already interviewed over 2000 people until now, and it is a challenging task. People will talk to her about their opinions and she will record it by taping. Because of her hard-working, she can imitate people in detail– from voice to tone, from emotion to accent. Anna Deavere Smith is really good at using her voice, indeed, her frequent changes in tones and different accents contribute to her performance. Everyone has his or her own voice, acoustically. You can distinguish people from their voices. For example, youngsters are normally more sonorous and fast. Elders will have accents and speak slowly. Also, voices could show different emotions. Angry voice is normally faster and has lesser breaks between sentences. As for the sadness or painful emotion, people will have more pauses between sentences and express themselves word by word.

What Anna Deavere Smith does is she can find how people speak and how they think. She knows when is the best time she needs to pause to grab audiences’ attention and change characters’ emotions. Smith is a great actress with any doubt, her performance is so real that you can feel that the interviewees are right talking to you. Smith will use body language like gestures and different movements to perform portrayals of people. When she is playing the role of an elder, she will stoop her back and try to walk slowly.

Anna Deavere Smith’s portrait on the booklet given by Krannert Center

Different Type of Art

Anna Deavere Smith’s performance is totally different from news or documentary films. The news tells you the truth objectively without any emotion. But Smith tells audiences the opinions from acting. She is trying to express people’s opinions. Also, she is good at performing, so in her performance, audiences will feel like they are talking to that person she recorded. As for the documentary film, I would say her performance is a new type of documentary. In her performance, Smith will blend her own opinion into the acting, it is not simply record something, but more related to express something.

What is great is that Smith has a Q&A section after her performance, and one of the audiences asked that the impact of new tech like social media to her performance. I would like to answer this audience’s question first. Anna Deavere Smith’s topics are usually around social issues. It is not only criminal news on TV report but something about race, identity, and community, which are what we care about in root.

Moreover, someone thinks that her performance is hard to attract the young generation’s attention. Well, from this show, most of the audiences are elders, but that not means youngsters are not interested in social issues. Actually, the young generation could bring some new ideas that represent the current ideology and thoughts.

People applauded at the end of the performance

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