Artist explores racial injustice through monologues
Nicole Caratas | Tuesday, February 23, 2016
As part of the annual Margaret M. Hill Endowed Visiting Artist performance, Anna Deavere Smith gave a lecture and performance titled “From Rodney King to Michael Brown: The Narrative of Ferguson,” in which she performed monologues from her first play, “Twilight: Los Angeles,” and her most recent project on the school-to-prison pipeline — the practices that push at-risk youth out of schools and into the criminal justice system.
Professor of Theatre Katie Sullivan introduced Smith. She said Smith was the first visiting artist when the endowment began in 2006, so it was appropriate to invite her back for the 10th anniversary, especially in light of recent racial tensions in America.
“As we have watched our country struggle with racial division and inequality once again these last two years — from Ferguson to Baltimore, and Cleveland, and then Chicago — it seemed a good time to hear from [Smith] again,” Sullivan said. “She has the wonderful capacity to engage in conversations and ultimately to listen carefully to everyone as she carves out space for us to understand each other on complex and distressing national issues that involve us all politically, racially and culturally.”
Smith said she travels around the country and interviews different people who were involved in or who witnessed different racial injustices.
“My grandfather told me when I was a girl, ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes,’” Smith said. “For the last many years, I’ve been going around America with a tape recorder trying to become America word for word by repeating what people say and putting myself in other people’s words, the way you would put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Smith said the excerpts from her plays focused on law enforcement and education. She said she would perform pieces from her play from 1992 and from her most recent play to show how tensions have not necessarily changed over the years.
“One of the things that plagues America from time to time is the relationship between law enforcement and individuals,” Smith said. “ … We also haven’t really gotten over the sort of chasm between social classes and races, which means some people are left outside of opportunity.”
According to Smith, her first play focused on the riots that ensued after the killing of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers was captured on film and spread worldwide. Similarly, her most recent play focuses on the riots that ensued after the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police officers was captured with a smartphone camera and broadcasted to the world. Smith performed as Stanley Sheinbaum, Elaine Young, Cornel West, Keith Godfrey, Kevin Moore and Michael Tubbs — all people she had interviewed — to illustrate the experiences of people who have been pushed to the edges of society.
“I want to look at this because it’s sort of remarkable that it keeps happening,” Smith said. “The question is: Are there things that we here in this room … can do in our own lives to keep things from happening?”
She said her performances are not about the police officers, citing a speech by President Barack Obama in which he said fixing the problem does not start with trying to fix the officers.
“This is really a problem of poverty,” Smith said. “It’s a problem of who is left behind. The cops in many ways are here for all of us — including me — to protect us against the possibility that those who are disenfranchised will harm us, our property or our loved ones. They are in the trenches to protect us, so we need to get it together and do something about this gap that we have.”