Art in a Time of Civic Failure:
Anna Deavere Smith and Tom Healy

November 20, 2013

What happens when words fail us? In a wide-ranging conversation on the civic role of art, renowned actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith and poet Tom Healy explore the thorny relationship between language, identity and politics.

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Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith in Second Stage Theater’s production of Let Me Down Easy at Washington’s Arena Stage, December 31, 2010–February 13, 2011. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tom Healy: You’ve written about what it’s like for us when our language breaks down—how you learn a lot about people when words fail them. We want to communicate, so we have to dig down deeper—for other resources. Have you had an experience where you’ve felt words have failed you?

Anna Deveare Smith: What a great question. Something happened in class today—I teach a class called “Performing Identities”—where one of the students performed some work about her family that was unbelievably moving. It was just so beautifully rendered and there was so much pain in the story. I noticed that one woman was very moved and I looked at her and asked, “Donna, would you like to say something?” And she just put her hand on her chest and shook her head and said, “Can’t.”

We all know those moments where we don’t have thoughts; we certainly have feelings, but we can’t find the words. And I think that actions sometimes happen when there aren’t any words. Violence, too. Martin Luther King famously said that a riot is the language of the unheard. On the other hand, people make love when there’s nothing to talk about. This relationship between language and action has always interested me, so I’ve been particularly drawn to the first-person narrative, the monologue. When someone’s talking to me from a place where they struggle with words, as an actress I believe that that will give me a way to enter something else about them that’s bigger and more powerful than words.

TH: I wanted to talk to you about dialogue and politics in this failure of words. You have spent a lot of time in Washington. You’ve looked at the personalities of power in Washington, and clearly we’re seeing a failure right now in how words are used, with narratives breaking down for different reasons. Tell me what you think is happening there.

The artist actually gives an allowance to the public—an allowance to spend emotionally, think differently about ourselves and create change.

ADS: I think that’s a wonderful question, and while I don’t have the answer for you, let’s just say that this is an exact example of a failure of words. People don’t want to hear from one another. They don’t trust that anything being said is true. They don’t want to be in what we think democracy is, which is in part a discourse, a conversation that has been a part of our history. I remember reading the words of a historian who asserted that this is a country that talked and wrote itself into existence. And yet there have been these many, many bitter times of “There’s nothing else to say, I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” the Civil War being an extreme example. That’s what we’re in right now.

On a personal level, I was just thinking about how my paternal grandfather and grandmother—I was told this by one of my uncles living in the same house with six children—didn’t speak to each other for six years.

TH: Six years.

ADS: But I don’t know what kicked off the bitterness. It makes you think about what it takes not to speak, what it does to the people around you and then, what it takes to speak again.

TH: That’s the story you want to hear more than what started it: after six years, how did that end?

ADS: How did it melt? Who first said “Good morning”? Just that. “Pass the bread.”

TH: But maybe that will happen. Maybe we can have that optimism, maybe, eventually, there will be such fatigue with ignoring each other that we’ll finally have to just talk at breakfast. Maybe there’ll be even more severe brokenness than we’re having…

ADS: It makes me really want to pay attention to when the iceberg starts to melt. What are the first utterances?

TH: One of the things you’ve written about in Letters to a Young Artist, which I thought was really extraordinary, is how, in our culture, we talk so much in financial and material terms. In general, you write, we think of an “allowance” as the money that a patron or the government might give to an artist; but instead, you suggest that the artist actually creates and gives an allowance to the public—an allowance to spend emotionally, think differently about ourselves and create change. I’m curious if you think there are specific ways that we should be doing that.

ADS: If you and I had predicted what’s going on in Washington right now, it would have been great to commission five different artists to make work inspired by what’s happening, just like presidents often have artworks commissioned when they’re inaugurated. I remember talking with Jacob Lawrence, a great African-American painter, and looking at the work he created when President Carter was inaugurated. It’s worth considering that we commission art for state events that we’re proud of—as when President Obama chose our friend Elizabeth Alexander to be the inaugural poet—and we also invite artists to funerals. At the same time, I don’t think we recognize how important it would be to expect artists to do their best at a time of absolute civic failure.

TH: That would be fascinating.

Apartheid would not have fallen without the help of artists who were willing to risk their lives.

ADS: Take September 11. People called me up and said, “I hope you’re working.” I have to say, I wasn’t able to work. But if you and I were to have an artist-training project in this country, it would be so that people would be prepared to work in these worst of circumstances. For example, at the Aspen Institute this summer I invited a very interesting photographer from South Africa, Zanele Muholi, whose subject is gay and transgender people. It’s beautiful work. She spoke at Aspen the very week that the Supreme Court’s vote came down on same-sex marriage. And I knew that that would probably happen. We all did. So I invited her and then I invited Evan Wolfson, who’s considered to be one of the architects of the marriage equality movement. What was really interesting to me is that South Africa has had legal same-sex marriage for some time.

TH: Yes, quite some time. It’s in the Constitution.

ADS: Yes, in the Bill of Rights. But still, women are beaten and men commit what is called “corrective rape.” In our case, in America, we couldn’t have gotten this far without culture. In South Africa’s case, the law came first and culture is lagging.

Zanele said that under Apartheid it was illegal for blacks to take photographs. So then you have to think, “Wow, Apartheid fell in 1994. How did this culture manage to produce Zanele?” Apartheid would not have fallen without the help of artists—

TH: Of course, so many artists and writers…

ADS: …who were willing to risk their lives. I think that’s something that we really don’t know very much about.

TH: No, we don’t.

ADS: We talk about artistic freedom, but we don’t understand those risks.

TH: Tell me more about Jacob Lawrence. You got to know him and—while we’re thinking about Apartheid—you have beautifully rendered how he was not used to seeing white people.

ADS: When I was researching him to interview him, I read somewhere that he had a breakdown when he became successful in the late 1940s. I would never ask anybody a direct question about something like that—“How did you have that breakdown? Why did you have it? How did you get better?”—unless I first sniffed around to see if I could ask it. So, I said something like, “What was it like for you to be so celebrated in the downtown art world?” And he said, “Well, New York was downtown and uptown. I lived uptown. Downtown was all the white people and uptown was all the black people and, coming from the South originally, if I ever saw a white man in the street uptown I would just think to myself ‘Oh, that’s a lyncher.’” He thought that all white people were part of lynch mobs.

TH: Danger, danger.

ADS: Danger. And still sniffing, I asked, “How did you get over that?” And he said, “You know, it’s just like children think there’s ghosts and goblins under their bed and then one day they go away.” In other words, he realized that that assignment of violence to every white person was a figment of his imagination—just as it is when people think a black man in Tribeca needs to be stopped and frisked.

TH: Yes. It looks like we’re finally about to see a change in that policy. Speaking of ghosts and goblins under the bed, I wanted to ask you about your place of origin. You’re a girl from Charm City—from Baltimore—and I’m curious about your sense of Baltimore’s artistic imagination. John Waters has said it’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore and decided to stay.

ADS: What a great thing to say.

TH: So do you go back? Do you have still family there?

Everybody was saying, if you want to be a writer you have to write about yourself. And I just thought, I don’t like that idea. I think it’s a spiritual dead end.

ADS: I have family there. I’ve been thinking about those family members a lot lately. Most of them are dead. I’m overdue to go back. When I was starting my career as a young actor and writer, everybody was saying, if you want to be a writer you have to write about yourself. And I just thought, I don’t like that idea. I think it’s a spiritual dead end. So I went the other way, which was to look for the people who are not like me at all. But I do have a strong longing now to go back. It’s a bit sad that it’s this late because I only have one living woman in my mother’s family of eight, and two living men, and there are pieces about my background that I don’t really know.

I was just thinking the other day about my paternal grandfather, whom I hardly knew. He had a common-law wife, with whom I was very close. He looked like a Native American: sort of red-faced with very straight, long white hair. He was an alcoholic and my mother would take us to see him every once in a while and he would cry. It was always so sad. I thought about how, when I went back to Baltimore to attend conservatory, I worked three jobs, one of which was at a men’s club—the Maryland Club, the second-oldest white men’s club in the country. I was a cocktail waitress…

TH: I didn’t know you did that.

ADS: Oh yeah, I was a cocktail waitress, but it was so strict that I wore a nurse’s uniform and all of the people serving food and cocktails were black women. Women were not allowed above the second floor of this place without men—these were white women, of course—and the people who dealt with money, from the bartenders to the manager, were all white Germans. Baltimore is very separated. I started to talk to the guys who worked there and there was a humped-back black man at the front door and he told me stories. I found out from him, by absolute accident, that my grandfather had worked in the billiards room of the same club and I hadn’t known. So this is just a long way of saying that I’m overdue to stop my projects about the experiences of other people for a while and go home because, well, I could probably join the Maryland Club now.

TH: Yes, you could, and you would not have to wear a nurse’s uniform.

ADS: I wouldn’t have to be a maid there. They probably need membership, because nobody belongs to those clubs anymore.

TH: Nobody’s going upstairs at all.

ADS: I could probably join it just to try to channel my grandfather.

TH: Right, bring him back.

ADS: Then the other thing about Baltimore that I wonder if John Waters has ever talked about is the sensory experience of living there, which is very strong because of the humidity and the smells in the summertime: the honeysuckle on the one hand and the mildew on the other. It’s like New Orleans in that way.

TH: It is exactly.

ADS: But the South is like that.

TH: The South is that way, yes.

ADS: New York isn’t that far away, but there’s no night insects, no playing with the lightning bugs—none of that.

TH: Nothing like that, no. Well, I’ll be curious to follow that journey of you going back. There is no right time for that, right? It happens when it does.

ADS: It’s good if you can do it when people are alive because they can tell you things. Particularly, I think, in black culture of that era. My aunts and uncles were raised in the Depression, you know.

TH: It’s a lot of oral history.

ADS: It’s a lot of oral history that would’ve been perfect to collect. If only I had chosen to do that in the 1980s instead of running around looking for right-wing Republican homophobic cowboys to fall in love with…

TH: I was thinking about you in Aspen. I know you spend a lot of time at Aspen and it’s a very productive, creative place for you. I was thinking about Aspen and the symbolism of trees. It turns out that the aspen tree is a symbol of community.

ADS: I didn’t know that.

TH: The reason is that aspens famously grow in groves.

ADS: Right, beautiful.

TH: And they are actually one living organism because the roots grow together and new aspen trees sprout from the roots of old ones. You could even level an entire forest of aspen trees and the root system, that organism, would still be there and grow back. Aspen groves are among the oldest living organisms in the world, and they’re ubiquitous around the country. They have this shimmer, this sense of community. Can you tell me about the Aspen community, which you, in part, have made, and what it is for you?

ADS: I came to Aspen at the invitation of Walter Isaacson to be the institution’s first artist in residence and to help them rebuild the part of the Aspen legacy started by Walter Paepcke, a great Chicago industrialist. When Paepcke began the Aspen Institute, it was called the Goethe Institute, named after the great playwright and poet. I became very involved there. I joined the board. And I then decided, after much evaluation, to take a project of mine to Aspen.

Artists have the will, the feeling, the beauty and the structure, so let’s put them together with the people who are doing social justice work in the real world.

Anna Deavere Smith Works is a 501 c 3, derived from an institute I directed at Harvard for three summers in the 1990s. That project, called The Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, was created to bring artists from around the world together who do work on social change. We produced new works and presented everything in progress. After a thorough evaluation process, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, who had funded the three summers, I decided to create the project as an independent 501 c3. Ultimately, given the limited resources I have I thought I’d get a lot more mileage by being under the umbrella of another organization.

The Aspen Institute was a perfect spot because it had these wonderful preexisting policy programs that deal with the real world. I thought it was a great opportunity to collaborate with the best and the brightest and to bring artists together with people who are making a difference working in communities, particularly those made vulnerable by poverty, and solving real problems. The artists have the will, the feeling, the beauty and the structure, so let’s put them together with the people who are doing humanitarian and social justice work in the real world.

I love your idea of the aspen grove and those clusters because that’s exactly what was in my mind. That’s what a community is: an opportunity. I don’t believe in the notion that arts organizations are meant to nurture and take care of artists. It always made me uncomfortable because it’s so condescending.

TH: It’s infantilizing.

ADS: It’s infantilizing. And I’m not even interested. I don’t need—

TH: You don’t need to be taken care of.

ADS: I don’t need to be taken care of and I’m not going to take care of—even as a teacher, I’m not good at that. I’m very interested in artists whom I call wolves: nomadic, tough people like Zanele Muholi. She doesn’t need me. However, I can be of use to her by putting her on a platform like Aspen. She’s very grateful. And nomadic, hard-working, tough people—survivalists—enjoy the comfort of being with others occasionally and then they…

TH: Then they need to roam.

ADS: They go.

TH: They go. So it is a perfect grove for that.

ADS: Those are the kind of people I really like. I love that image because it’s like these absolutely independent, lean beauties together.

TH: Exactly. It’d be great to pull this back to where we began, thinking about civic failure. If so many of Washington’s thinkers go there, if that could be a place where this idea of artists intervening in these moments of failure, maybe there’s some possibility there.

ADS: I think there is—especially if we can make sure that artists don’t become the decoration.

TH: It’s true. I think it’s a big risk. I was asked to talk about art and diplomacy recently, and I talked about the risk to art in any diplomatic effort, or any official governmental effort. Because that’s where art can get lost.

ADS: Some kinds of art.

TH: Some kinds of art can get lost and unseen in that transaction, when it’s supposed to mean a certain kind of thing that becomes hard to see.

ADS: On the other hand, there are these very important, usually famous artists who have been essential to cultural, even diplomatic, transactions.

TH: No question.

ADS: You and I might say of the more tried-and-true art, “Oh well that’s not exactly the most riveting,” for people all over the world to learn about America through the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, or say Jessye Norman, Beverly Sills, Yo Yo Ma or Renee Fleming. But what you and I might not consider the most compelling art can actually have a huge impact. Particularly when it comes in those forms that transcend language, that are not trapped in language, which exist because they are coming out of the place where words don’t fail.

TH: Yes – where words don’t even happen. It’s urgent, that sort of thing. I was just thinking in this context about Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, at the time of Elvis Presley, jazz and early rock music. The Soviets did not want the Russian youth to get their hands on this music, and of course radio was not possible, so people would try to get bootleg records in.

ADS: It must be the same in many other countries right now.

TH: Exactly, but you know how Soviet citizens slipped them by the authorities? People outside Russia would send X-ray film—for somebody’s chest X-ray, for example—into Russia. But recorded on it would be an Elvis Presley or Louis Armstrong album. People could bring in the X-rays, they’d get played as records, they’d get worn out and people would smuggle in some new ones. It was a huge bootleg business to get music past the censors. And because it was secretly recorded on X-rays, it was called “playing on the bones.”

ADS: I love that story because where there’s a will there’s a way: it’s the underground nature of art. It finds its way like immigrants—the people we call “illegal immigrants.” They find their way across the border. In the same way, art simply can’t be stopped.

TH: “Art simply can’t be stopped.” I think that’s the perfect place for us to stop!

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  • Tianyuan Deng

    A conversation strewn with insights. Thank you!