♪ Studies tell us that listening is like driving: most people think they're way better at it than they are.
This is funny and also a huge problem in marriage and parenting and in a country struggling to keep itself together.
Anna Deavere Smith is celebrated as an actor and a writer, but above all, she is a professional observer who turns curiosity into interviews into one-woman shows, in which she embodies the powerful and the dismissed, sharing their words verbatim with audiences that might otherwise never hear the story of the dock worker, the jury member, or the nurse.
The results are sublime and subversive and might reflect the only way forward: listening.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with educator, writer, actor, and the woman "Newsweek" calls "the most exciting individual in American theater," Anna Deavere Smith.
♪ ♪ You said once that you borrow people for a moment.
Not just me.
I think that's what we, as actors, do, that we rent out our own identity... [chuckles] and then we borrow.
You know, if it's like a character that's written, you know, if I'm playing in "Raisin in the Sun" or something, I'm for rent, and I'm also, you know, the character that Lorraine Hansberry created is for lease.
Not giving away but just renting out and not really taking but borrowing.
You're an Uber driver for identity.
Is that what I am?
I like that.
I like that.
And when you were growing up, you were not dreaming of being an actress onstage.
What were you dreaming of?
I guess when I started to think about what to be, I wanted to be a psychiatrist.
And I went to see "West Side Story," and I remember crying and crying and crying for days and days.
This is the movie.
And my mother walked by and said, "That's it.
"You can't be a psychiatrist.
You're too sensitive."
That's so interesting because a lot of what you're doing, actually... Is like that, yeah.
I mean, if you're a sensitive person, you have put yourself in this position where you are feeling others.
Well, that would be the best thing to be, wouldn't it?
When I was in high school and could really start to think about it... Yeah.
I don't know.
I think I made this up, but these people do exist.
I wanted to be a linguistic ethnologist.
I wanted to learn all the languages of the world.
Because I loved my French class.
It was my first class of all of school where I just loved it so much that I didn't want the weekend to come.
OK, so you get into college, and you start acting through ACT out in San Francisco-- American Conservatory theater, which is incredible, but they're talking about method acting, which is not sort of jiving with your world views.
So, can you break down a little of why you didn't like it?
Well, you know, I didn't know anything about anything, and I went to acting school one summer just to do something with my time.
I left home with $80 in an overnight bag and went to California.
So I got a job.
Then I didn't know how to drive.
I got a driver's license.
And so after I succeeded in these things, I had all this spare time.
And I thought I would be a stage manager.
And so I called the American Conservatory Theater, and I said, "Do you need any stage managers?"
The switchboard operator, who was the only Black woman around, said, "My dear, you have to be in the union."
And I said, "Well, how about some acting?"
And she said, "Well, we have a summer program if you'd like to come."
And I went, but I thought I was just doing it for fun.
I didn't know that people were in that program-- there's like 200 and some people-- in order to get a place in their conservatory and from that to build these careers and be famous.
I was just doing something with my time... That's insane.
I mean, you're... and I was fascinated.
You are, like, the actor's actor.
Like, if you ask 100 actors, "Who do you admire most," your name is going to come up 10 out of 10 times.
Like, it's incredible to think that you fell into it.
I absolutely fell into it.
So tell us what method acting is.
What is that?
So what method acting is, then... and, look, it's changed.
This was, like, in the seventies.
So what method acting was became very famous in America because of Marlon Brando and that set of people who studied method, the method.
And if you watch a movie like "On the Waterfront," you will see a split in what the acting is like.
One form of acting, like what Marlon Brando was doing, was more true-seeming.
It was more like how people were, and the other was more like vaudeville, right?
And it all started in Russia with a man named Constantin Stanislavski, who wrote about making it real, with these sort of true-seeming feelings.
Unfortunately, his very famous book, "An Actor Prepares," actually starts with a student with chocolate on his face performing "Othello," so there are problematic things.
There's this basic idea that every character in the world lives in me, that I don't have to find the Hamlet there.
There's a Hamlet in me.
And I felt that was a real stretch.
And if you add to it race and social class and all these things that make us separate and different from one another, it seemed to me to be a problem.
And so I wanted to develop a way of getting to, in fact, the very feeling of being able to represent a person's disarray.
And I based it more on what classical training is about, like with Shakespeare.
You don't, like, dig in actual-- you have to say the words the way the words are.
And so I developed a process of talking to people and getting them in the interview to a point where they would make very interesting linguistic architectures.
I say they would "start singing."
And so the first one of my plays that I made, not expecting to do it as a one-person show at all, I went up to people on the streets of New York, and I said, "I know an actor who looks like you.
"If you'll give me an hour of your time, I'll invite you to see yourself perform."
You've been doing this for 20 years, and you've been celebrated for it.
The very first time you walked up to a total stranger on the streets of New York and said, "I'd like to talk to you for an hour," what was the response of the first person?
Anna: The Lifeguard at the Y. on 63rd Street, right, somebody who I'd never talked to before.
And, you know, and he said, "OK." You know, a lady in the dress store up the street.
And then it got more specific.
Like, Meredith Monk was one, the great composer.
I mean, I do a lot of interviews, right?
And in the course of, you know, to write my play "Twilight," which is on now, 320 interviews.
So the people who end up in the show are people who-- it has nothing to do with education, who are organized in some kind of psycholinguistic way.
They have extraordinarily high communicative ability.
Through their body... yeah.
Through their body and through the sounds that they make, and especially, I like people who don't finish sentences, you know, that they, and they don't finish them because something's really going on as they recount--they're recounting to me something that happened usually.
You know, and I like catastrophe because I'm a dramatist.
And so that is what I mean when I say they start singing or there are these, like, real architectures that come out of their mouths.
And I believe those words have a kind of a magic to them, that when I say them over and over again, I'm going to start to experience something like what they experience.
My grandfather in Baltimore said to me--us, "If you say a word often enough, it becomes you."
And so I've been trying to become America word for word by going around, interviewing people, and finding these architectures and these musics and taking them on, and...doing it now with other actors, which really pleases me to have the chance to do that.
Kelly: So there is this weird, interesting tension that I perceive, which is that your method is capturing natural speech, but the acting that you've been doing, like "West Wing" and the work that you do with Shonda Rhimes, is the most unnatural speech.
And it's so precise, and it's more articulate than any human being has ever been in the history of mankind.
Every sentence is finished.
How is that for you?
You just--the first thing they tell you when you get to Shondaland is in Shondaland, "We say what is written," and they mean it.
So if I say "it is" instead of "it's"-- the same way on "The West Wing"-- they come over and they say, "She wants it's."
How is that for you?
Well, I mean, it has a lot in common with what I do, right?
Because I'm learning every "uh" and every "um" in addition in my own work.
So I respect the words.
I respect the words.
And so on "West Wing," when you guys are flying through those, like, oh... That was more just terrifying because, you know, I was not, you know, in the gang, right?
They would fly me out from New York, and sometimes I would get the script very late.
And you can't--even if you have a photographic memory, your tongue has to have time.
I was just afraid of being embarrassed, like, sending me out on the court with, you know, the best basketball team in the world, and all of a sudden, like an actress' nightmare.
It's like, "Anna messed it up again.
We'll have to start over because Anna..." "Sorry!
"She's still learning it."
Oh, the worst thing of all is when the script supervisor comes over, and he says, "Would you like to look at it?"
♪ Kelly: We also have a speed round.
Are you ready?
If I looked at your playlist, your Spotify playlist, what song would be the most listened to?
It'd be a toss-up between Aretha Franklin's "Everyday People" or Aretha Franklin's driving on the "Freeway."
Best live performance you've ever seen?
The Shirelles in Madison Square Garden in 1971.
If you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
To the five actors who are playing in my play "Twilight," which will be over by the time this is broadcast, Carry on now, champions.
[chuckles] ♪ Wasn't one of your earliest jobs working at a complaint department at an airline?
That was the year that I really developed this way of working.
I mean, that I made my--you know, the whole thing, "If you give me an hour," and then made the show and all that stuff.
And one of the people in the show was one of the people who worked there.
But that gave me a little bit more courage about my whole theory because those letters were unbelievable.
They were letters, and I had to type the response and give it to my boss.
That was really almost having you being accused of something you didn't do, right?
That's how people felt when they experience bad customer service.
And, I mean, one woman's, from somewhere in the Arab world's, mother was supposed to have been greeted.
It was KLM airlines, and they did not greet her in Dulles Airport.
[chuckling] And she ended up in a cab, being driven around Washington, D.C., for 2 hours.
And, I mean, you can imagine this woman from Egypt or somewhere, and you just-- That would make me just fall out laughing.
But that was it.
It's like, these letters are so--they're letters-- so expressive.
You know, because something had happened that really, you know, set people off.
So inhabiting people's language is sort of like that kind of perspective taking.
In social science, they did this thing about couples who are about to break up.
Have you heard this before?
That, like, if you're really-- like, your marriage is really on the last legs, they go through this exercise where we have to speak from each other's point of view using "I."
And sometimes it is this incredible healing moment where the cognitive becomes emotional.
And I wonder, like, who modeled empathy for you?
Who modeled this perspective taking that could be the thing that knits the country back together?
Like, in some ways, Republicans and Democrats are in a tough marriage.
Like, I mean, we sort of have to stay married, right, for the whole thing to work?
We almost didn't previously.
So, you know, some people-- Drew Faust, a great scholar of the Civil War, former president of Harvard, first woman president of Harvard, said, you know, we're, like, in another civil war now.
You know, and I think that if not a real war, we're in a intellectual and cultural war worse than the one in the '80s.
And so we are quite divided.
Do you see perspective taking as a way--like... People have to be willing to do it.
You know, I did something up at Vassar one time where this African-American sociologist-- woman professor and the cop, the head of the police of Vassar, at a time when Black men at Vassar were, you know, saying that they were being stopped on campus and being accused.
And it was, you know, a lot of heat about it.
And she was one of the primary people speaking for the Black kids, and I actually got these two people to perform each other, nervous as can be, showing up in black turtlenecks for this group of students.
And it was so moving to have him talking like this hot, you know, intellectual academic/sociologist with dreadlocks, and her talking like him.
But that couldn't happen everywhere.
The reason that happened at Vassar at that time-- I don't know who the president of Vassar was at the time-- but there was obviously something going on in that culture that it seemed to be of value for people to try.
So you have to have that, of value, I think, and we're not there.
Maybe we should send you to D.C., and you could do an exercise with Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer... You think they would do it?
[chuckles] I don't know, but, boy.
It would be exciting.
♪ Kelly: It's been an eventful couple years in America.
Like, I wonder if, when you're living through these years, if you think, "Oh, my God.
"I'm gonna have to do a whole new show.
I'm going to have to capture this."
I mean, right now, my new show is going to be about girls who--you know, I have a question of what happens to a girl who grows up without a caring adult.
That's my specific question right now.
And I realized, you know, when we think about the individual who's most vulnerable, we rightly think about boys of color, but girls are now-- I mean, they got their own gangs.
They're handling their own pacts.
Chicago, they're stealing cars at 14 years old.
And, also, women because of the rise of incarceration of women, and women were girls one time, what that does to a whole community to take the women away.
And I want to know why, what's happening.
But it's like, How can we get proximate to that?
How can we understand that how much this affects all of society?
♪ Your dad never really understood what you did.
He never said, "Congratulations."
He didn't understand it.
However, I never will forget that I was nominated for two Tonys, and I didn't know anything about this whole Tony world, and I was so not prepared for that, you know, psychologically what that meant.
You just kind of have to put on these clothes and walk down this red carpet.
So I didn't win, you know.
I got nominated.
I get home at the end of the night, and this is when we had answering machines.
And there's my father on the answering machine, saying, "Don't take it too hard."
That meant a lot.
You're so good at calling out names of people who have had an impact on your thinking.
We at "Tell Me More" have this thing we call Plus One, which is where we deliberately shine a light on somebody who's been super influential in your thinking or supportive in your work.
There are two people.
I was profoundly, profoundly influenced by the work and presence of Ntozake Shange, who wrote "For Colored Girls" and other plays.
To this day, 40 years later, when my Black women students get up to perform something, they're still using melodies and rhythms that were given to us first by Ntozake Shange.
The way she was vulnerable to the world around her and what that play "For Colored Girls" meant and the vulnerability of those Black women, who first played-- those roles on Broadway in the public theater, I just don't even have words for it.
It feels like it's like some profound medicine, something chemical that Ntozake Shange brought into the American theater that I can't--it's just, I mean, her genius was palpable.
And the other person is Adrienne Kennedy, whose work as a Black woman playwright had more in common, say, with Beckett.
She was really coming from a place about identity and a place about form that was just, it shook my psyche and it shook me, and I think it made me for sure want to continue to work with fragments.
And, I mean, right now I could just cry and do everything about their medicine.
♪ What is the difference between hope and optimism?
So that is Cornel West.
I went to talk to him when I was redrafting my play "Twilight" to make a version of it that was going to go on the road.
And he differentiates between hope and optimism by basically saying optimism says, "Huh.
"Looks pretty good out there.
Things are gonna be better.
You know, we can go sailing today" or whatever, but hope looks at the evidence and says, "It doesn't look good at all.
Doesn't look good at all.
"I'm going to make a leap of faith, "go beyond the evidence to attempt to create "new possibilities based on visions "to allow people to engage in heroic actions, always against odds, no guarantee whatsoever."
And then he says, I'm a prisoner of hope, though," right?
And so I love that definition of hope.
I think that's exactly what hope is.
And in America, especially in the theater, people say--you know, my plays about catastrophes, all the time say, "Is there any hope?"
They don't really mean hope.
They want something at the end of the show that lets them think everything's going to be all right, but that's different than hope.
Hope is a lot more work.
Hope is a real act of imagination.
Are you hopeful?
Yeah, I am.
When I was watching "Twilight"-- Los Angeles, 1992-- which was created in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and the terrible riots or resistance or... Revolution.
Revolution or any word that you want to put on it, which is so significant, what words you choose there, but at any rate, you created this piece that brought together all these voices reflecting back on what that experience was for them-- to be the owner of the store, to be the aunt of Rodney King, to be on the jury, et cetera.
And then two nights ago, I sat in a theater and watched it redone.
And I left thinking, Is there cause for hope?
Like, how much has changed since she first did this?
I think that's different than "Is there hope?"
To look at Rodney King's beating, to look at what happened, to look at George Floyd.
We said we have not advanced, but one way we did advance is that everybody was shocked that those cops in Los Angeles walked.
Shocking to everyone that had never lived through it.
It was shocking to anybody who hadn't lived through it.
And how could this not be considered brutality?
And when it came time for the Chauvin verdict, nobody just assumed it was going to be OK.
I don't know about you, but I was, like, glued to that, you know, hyperventilate-- I was terrified.
I was terrified.
So we've learned something about the system.
And I certainly, I mean, look, I grew up in a segregated city, and I'm not pleased that it's just as segregated as it was, right?
And in terms of opportunity, in many ways, it's worse.
So I'm not a Pollyanna, but I have to have hope because, otherwise, why keep trying?
And I think that it is tragic if you stop trying to make it better.
I'm going to make a leap of faith and try to come up with some kind of a sense of possibility, so that people will engage in heroic actions.
And so I really believe--I guess I don't know this hymn, but I love it.
You know, there's this hymn about the blood-stained banner of struggle, and I think there's real dignity in struggle.
There's real worthy work to do.
And you have to have hope to do that work.
So you end your show "Twilight," Los Angeles, 1992, by sharing the words of an ex-gang member, who you talked to in a Denny's about the need for a more complex language, and I wondered if you would send us out on his lines.
"Twilight is that time of day between day and night limbo, "I call it limbo, "and sometimes when I take my ideas to my homeboys, "they say, 'Well, Twilight, "'that's something you can't do right now, "that's an idea that's before its time.'
"So sometimes I feel as though I'm stuck in limbo "the way the sun is stuck between night and day "in the twilight hours.
"Nighttime to me is like a lack of sun, "but I don't affiliate darkness with anything negative.
"I affiliate darkness with what came first "because it was first, "and relative to my complexion, "I am a dark individual, "and with me being stuck in limbo, "I see the darkness as myself, "and I see the light as the knowledge "and the wisdom of the world, "and the understanding of others.
"And I know that in order for me to be "a full human being, "I cannot forever dwell in darkness.
"I cannot forever dwell "in an idea of identifying with those like me and understanding only me and mine."
♪ Such a gift.
Thank you so much.
It's just been such a joy to be with you.
It's really a dream come true.
Oh, come on.
♪ If you loved this conversation, you might also enjoy related episodes with Bryan Stevenson, W. Kamau Bell, and Judy Woodruff.
For more on the science of curiosity and empathy that Anna Deavere Smith so exemplifies, listen to my special follow-on podcast on "Kelly Corrigan Wonders," or watch our companion video on pbs.org.
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