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Through my ears

Anna Deavere Smith on the music of language and the fallacy of separateness

The Rodney King riots. The American health care crisis. The school-to-prison pipeline. Writer and performer Anna Deavere Smith doesn't have a single area of interest. Instead, she listens for the stories America needs to tell. And then she tells them.

For much of the month of October, Smith will be in residence at Stanford University, where she taught in the drama department between 1990 and 2000 before moving to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. It was during her time on the Stanford faculty that she catapulted her way into the public eye with her one-woman play, "Fires in the Mirror," a show based entirely on first-person interviews conducted after the racially-motivated Crown Heights riots of 1991.

During her Stanford visit, the MacArthur Fellow and National Humanities Medal honoree will give live performances, show films of her work and participate in a range of public discussions about race, education, religion and the arts. Last week, Smith spoke to the Weekly about her creative process, her way of listening to language and her belief in the enduring relevance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message.

Your most recent play, "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education," tackles the idea of the "school-to-prison-pipeline." What have your learned through the process of creating this show?

I would probably now revise the notion of "school-to-prison" to "poverty-to-prison." What I've learned so far is that the environment in which kids are born makes it very, very difficult for them to make it through schools as we know them to be right now. If anything concerns me about that phenomenon, it's that I fear we're blaming schools for something for that's larger than just schools. It's almost as if we need a revision of what schools are if we expect them to provide the intervention we seem to expect. I don't think we can even imagine what we would need schools to be to address this issue.

Tell me about some of the people you've met in researching this topic.

I visited a juvenile facility outside Baltimore in Maryland, and talked to two young people. This was the first time I talked to two kids who were incarcerated. One of them, at end of interview when I thanked him for giving me his time, he sat forward and asked me if he could tell me why he was afraid not== to be committed. It was because if he were released he wouldn't be able to get any of the services that he gets inside. That was really something.

There was also a young woman at a facility in California. I was really interested in how smart she was. A the young age of 12, she had pimped off her brother's girlfriend. To think of a 12-year-old girl pimp; it does something to your brain.

When you enter a new community to conduct interviews, how do you gain trust initially?

I guess people know if you're listening; that's number one. I try not to ask too many questions. After a catastrophe, many people are willing, eager and excited to talk. Given that I'm a dramatist, I take myself to dramatic places. Even my piece on health care: Once you walk into hospital you have the fear of death, the worry that it could happen. People are facing the reality, "Life may end," or "I am incapacitated in some way that keeps me from the full realization of my life." I mean, even if you cut your finger and someone asks you about it, you generally have a bit of gusto to talk about it.

I'm interested in people who want to go to the top of a mountain and scream their truth. What you need in order to be on stage is a very, very strong desire to communicate. So first I have to find people who really, really want to talk. Inside of that, I look for the story.

Tell me about collaborating with musicians, as you do in a number of newer projects. How does it affect you as a performer to have live music in your shows?

Right now I'm working on a few different projects that use musicians. One is my new play, "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education," where I collaborate with a Bay Area jazz musician: Marcus Shelby, the bass player. With "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," I work with Bobby (McDuffie, violin) and Anne (Epperson, piano). First of all, I think it adds a house around what I'm doing. It certainly gives the audience an opportunity to access themselves emotionally. It evokes something in them that is not intellectual and non-verbal. As an actress, my medium is words and ideas, and music is something else entirely, although when I listen to language, I'm listening to its music more than its contents.

Can you say more about that? What does it mean to listen to the music of language?

If you try to teach a child how to say, "Thank you," most likely you'll say, "Say THANK yooo," or you'll refer to its mother as, "MAH mahhhh." Children learn through nursery rhymes and songs. Music comes as a primary and natural state for us, and the wonderful thing about music is that it's absolutely global. It doesn't need the intrusion of language in order to be understood.

I come from an oral tradition: the African American oral tradition. I grew up in the African American church, which had lots of music and oratorical mixed together. So I listen to the rhythm of speech. I've made about 19 plays that way. Also, I spend so much of my time listening to people's voices. It's very different from looking at words on a page. The only way I can learn this thing that I do is through my ears.

When you perform MLK's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" today, does its resonance feel historical or contemporary?

Oh, I think it's more relevant than ever, unfortunately. I happen to be a person who grew up in a segregated town -- de facto segregation -- in Baltimore. And it's much worse off now than when I was living there.

We talk about a moral imagination. Dr. King was certainly trying to spark a moral imagination in this country. He was also preaching love, counting on love. He was asking us to think about what great thinkers have suggested in the past, among them Martin Buber, who asked us to think about I and Thou and to think about the danger of seeing the world that way, or the writer Paul Tillich who says our tendency to separate ourselves is a tragic matter that's not really what we should be headed toward. Or this awful, inadvertent film festival we've been watching all year of cops killing young black males: It could not be more obvious that there is something the matter. We have forgotten. We are now living in an I and Thou world. So I think it makes sense to go back to the genius of King and to ask that some of his letter's resonances inspire us.

In Palo Alto there are so many things that people can do. It's one of the wealthiest areas in the world with a lot of imaginative people with resources, people who will have many more ideas than I could ever possibly have about what to do. I'm just an actor.

What: Anna Deavere Smith in residency

Where: Stanford University


• Conversations on Compassion, CEMEX Auditorium, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 6 p.m.

• Screening of "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" followed by a Q&A, Cubberley Auditorium, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m.

• Performance of "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Memorial Church, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 7:30 p.m.

• Talk with Anna Deavere Smith, Clark Center Auditorium, Friday, Oct. 23, noon.

• University Public Worship: An Interfaith Service of Remembrance, Memorial Church, Sunday, Oct. 25, 10 a.m.

• Art, Race and Citizenship: Anna Deavere Smith in conversation with Frank Rich, Bing Concert Hall, Monday, Oct. 26, 6 p.m.

• Storytelling and Healing, Memorial Auditorium, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m.

• Performance of "The Pipeline Project," Bing Concert Hall, Friday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Varies

Info: Go to

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