An Actress’s Sleight of Hand: Anna Deavere Smith

Cultivate your stamina for doubt, advised Anna Deavere Smith, answering an earnest Princeton University undergraduate. And she quoted her grandfather: “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.”

She gave the J. Edward Farnum lecture on Tuesday night: “The Song Inside of What They Said to Me: On Performing.” You may know Deavere Smith for her Condi Rice role on West Wing, but her real métier is the many-character, one-person documentary dramas, such as “Fires in the Mirror” (which I saw at McCarter), “Twilight in Los Angeles” (re the Rodney King trial) and “Let Me Down Easy” (about the healthcare debate.) She does her own interviews, like a reporter, and writes and performs her own script.

“By listening closely and capturing precisely the idioms of personality revealed in gesture, intonation, and expression, Anna re-animates people who deserve the public platform she offers,” said Jill Dolan, in the introduction. Her talent allows her to “not just take the temperature of the nation, not to just put her hand to its feverish forehead, but to describe the infections under the country’s skin.”

In the Q&A;, when a student unblinkingly asked where was the song when there was no music, Deavere Smith patiently suggested that the rhythm of the character’s voices constitutes a song, and she dropped into one, and then another of the handful of characters she had performed that evening. Six tone poems, an actress’s sleight of hand: the young Lubovitch housewife in Crown Heights, the Korean woman whose store was destroyed in LA, Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard, a survivor of Rwanda genocide, a white doctor in a New Orleans charity hospital after Katrina, and Ann Richards, Texas governor.

(To console yourself because you missed this, here is a link to good TedX YouTube video.)

Her title was Justice, but the underlying theme was Grace.

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