Friday, November 13, 2009

Speaking as an "Other"

I'm teaching Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith this week. Last night I re-watched the film with my class and was once again struck by how Smith so completely embodies the various interview subjects of her piece. Her work is a type of documentary theater known as "verbatim" theater. Actors recite the precise dialogue of real interview subjects, including all of the stutters and stammers and "ums" and "uhs." Smith uses minimal props--transforming herself within a 10 minute time span from an African American attorney to an African American church-going woman, to a Korean American store owner by either putting on or taking off earrings, jackets, a watch.

One of the writing exercises I did was to have my students describe a time when they felt like an "other," which I thought was relevant since this is essentially at the heart of what Smith is trying to convey through her embodiment of these various people and personas and in the exact recitation of their speech mannerisms, accents, intonations, and tone. She wants us to see, not her, but the people she has interviewed. To see all these "other" people not as "Others" but as individuals with their own stories--one's we may relate to intimately or feel revulsion towards or sympathy. Or in the best cases, empathy--empathy with someone who seems to be such an "other" on the surface but whose words move us to see who they are--to at least get a small glimpse of who they are.

Yet I was also distinctly uncomfortable watching Smith portray these people. Because some of her portraits almost verged on parody and stereotype--an accusation she has weathered from her various performances like Fires in the Mirror (actually, the review I'd linked to does not lambast Smith but others have in the past). How could audiences, especially ones unfamiliar with different ethnic and racial communities and the ANGER and RAGE associated with being a person of color in the U.S. (and in the case of Twilight: Los Angeles, the specific condition of black rage) understand the depth of emotion conveyed--what lies behind black anger instead of just being witness to the anger itself?

I think what audiences should keep in mind while watching Smith is that she is trying to really honor these people in all their flawed humanity and not to interpret them but to really convey them as they are. And, of course, she has no control over what audiences will take away from her performances.

Perhaps, in thinking about how I will talk about Smith and her performance in my class, I should rely on the tools of my trade. Because what Smith is doing in Twilight: Los Angeles is acting out the simile rather than performing metaphor. She is acting "as if" she were these various people--sharing with us their stories, rather than becoming or being these people--she can never be any of these people. But she can try to speak "as an other" if you will. And in doing so, to try to convey part of the pain and suffering and sorrow but also the sense of redemption and hope and justice that all emerged in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial.

Finally, if you have 25 minutes to watch this clip, you can actually see Anna Deveare Smith enacting verbatim theater and explaining why she performs barefoot!


macon d said...

Interesting approach on your part, thank you. I hear her new piece, "Let Me Down Easy," is very moving.

Aly said...

I am really taken by the idea of embodying similes as opposed to creating metaphors; the Smith piece is certainly very interesting. Too often do I feel disconnected from the intellectual communities that frontrun the way modern-day America is thinking.

As a mixed-race American myself, the integration of such ideas is something I strive for in my work and art. Thank you for starting this blog, I am excited to follow it and connect with others whom I find interesting.