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Response #1

In the PBS video clip posted on Blackboard, Anna Deavere Smith discusses her play Let Me Down Easy with host Tavis Smiley. First performed in 2009, this play is just one of Smith’s series of performance works which she calls On the Road: A Search for American Character. In these one-woman performances, Smith conducts interviews with real people, and then “devises a performance, using minimal props and costumes, in which she interweaves sections from the interviews, performing all of the roles herself” (Worthen 1044). Let Me Down Easy focuses on people who have been impacted by the still-topical controversy surrounding the American health care system. Rather than positioning herself on either side of a debate that she argues is “really just causing more confusion” (PBS 6:40), Smith uses art to encourage her audience to engage in a meaningful dialogue. When Smiley asks her opinion on the debate surrounding health care, Smith explains her position:

I don’t think that the debate is helpful. Debates should be helpful…. So now I will make my plug for art, which is I think we have an opportunity, artists do, you do, anybody who has any bit of public space—we have an opportunity to try to present points of view to the people and ask the people to use that chance to talk about it amongst themselves. It’s very important that we have a real national conversation about this. (PBS 6:25-7:10)

Smiley responds by telling Smith that he and Dr. Cornell West, with whom he had seen the play, wound up spending several hours after the show engaged in a “deep discourse” (PBS 7:23) about the issue of health care. If this was a common occurrence among her audience members, then it would seem that Smith was successful in her goal of using performance to stimulate discussion.

Smith’s style of performance exemplifies many characteristics of the postmodern as it is outlined in Worthen. The introduction to Unit 3 describes “the typical ‘postmodern’ interconnectedness between politics, economics, cultural change, and representation”, and the ways in which this interconnectedness is portrayed in contemporary drama (Worthen 731). One overarching theme of postmodern art is a “fundamental critique of ‘representation’” (Worthen 734). Worthen notes that

postmodern art tends to blur the distinction between signifier and signified, between the ‘real’ sphere of the reader, viewer, spectator and the ‘artificial’ sphere of art… Finally, postmodern art also challenges ‘representation’ in another sense, the sense that art ‘represents’ the world, stands in for it, shows us how it is in an apolitical manner. Much as Western culture has systematically excluded the perspectives and voices of ‘others’—by, for example, treating the expression of straight, white, Western men as ‘universal’, not a partial, specifically empowered perspective, so the arts in the wake of deconstruction have been pivotal in unlocking these marginalized, unrepresented perspectives. (Worthen 734)

Worthen goes on to include Anna Deavere Smith in a list of contemporary performance artists whose work successfully “blurs any settled distinction between the ‘actual’ and the ‘performed’” (Worthen 734-735). I think that Smith’s view of art in general, and her own performance work in particular, as being an integral part of discussions of important contemporary issues, is part of what allows her to straddle that line “between signifier and signified”. By engaging with contemporary issues and encouraging her audience to do the same, Smith, along with other postmodern artists, opens the door for art to move away from the tradition of merely representing the world as it is, and toward being a means of effecting meaningful change.

What solidifies Smith as a “postmodern” artist is not simply her choice of subject matter, but the manner in which she presents it. By crafting performance works out of real-life interviews and playing each of the subjects herself, she presents unique collections made up of various points of view that open the door for discussions of pressing social issues. Worthen describes the effect of such performances in his description of Fires in the Mirror, Smith’s play based on the rioting that occurred in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the summer of 1991:

Rather than providing a ‘history’ of these events, Smith’s Fires in the Mirror refracts the events through a series of monologues, some by participants—Gavin Cato’s father, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Yankel Rosenbaum’s brother Norman—and some by more distant observers, such as the playwrights Ntozake Shange and George C. Wolfe… Performing the words of her subjects, Smith carefully weaves an elaborate texture of commentary about race and ethnicity in the United States… Fires in the Mirror insistently blurs the boundary between the events and their retelling, presenting a kaleidoscopic re-presentation of events rather than a summary that pretends to a specious objectivity. (Worthen 1045)

As with her engagement with the issue of health care in Let Me Down Easy, Smith’s inclusion of various perspectives in Fires in the Mirror allows her to present an important moment in American history and to invite her audience to participate in an important conversation. I think that by including such diverse and frequently disparate views on such contentious topics, Smith creates an opportunity for her audience to engage in these discussions without coming across as preachy or as someone who purports to have an answer for these complicated issues. Some might argue that Smith is taking the easy way out by refusing to “take a side” in such debates, but I don’t think that’s the case. Based on her interview with Smiley, Smith seems to be someone who is very much interested in being a part of the conversation, not simply some self-proclaimed authority who believes she holds the answers for these ongoing issues.


Works Cited

“Actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith.” Interview by Tavis Smiley. PBS. PBS, 14 June 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

Worthen, W. B. Modern Drama: Plays, Criticism, Theory. Volume 2: Units 3 & 4. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Pub., 2003. Print.

~ by Kaitlyn Giblin on January 25, 2016 .

4 Responses to “Response #1”

  1.   Paul Says:

    It is amazing how neutral Smith can be in engaging these issues. I think her work is based on the premise that discourse is an essential element of empathy for those one despises, with which I agree, but I can’t help but think that the discourse brought on by her work in the theater isn’t going to occur between the relevant parties, the opposing sides. As she points out in “Not So Special Vehicles,” theater does not offer a terribly diverse audience base, and referencing a New Yorker cover which depicted a Hasidic woman hugging an African American woman was dreads, she states, “that it’s likely that more people saw the cover of the New Yorker, than would see the play” (1078). I would go farther, and ask how many of the African Americans or Hasadim in Crowne Heights saw that cover, let alone saw the play. We, the graduate students, theater goers and humanities enthusiasts can verbosely wonder about these issues with our pinkies raised high, but I don’t think our piece of this discourse is going to lead to real healing for those communities. She also makes several observations in that same piece about the lack of racial/cultural diversity in the audience of plays, and based on my limited personal experience, I don’t see that much has changed from 1993.

  2.   Nhu Says:


    To add onto your take of postmodernism on this play, I would say that Smith does a great job of aligning these personal identities into one of national importance, when race is a key factor in the conflict. I think that by portraying multiple voices she is also not putting importance on just one person or one side of the story, which supports what you are saying.
    You mention that she straddles on the line of the signified and the signifier. By using these individual voices, she seems to play into postmodern view by addressing that there are fragments and various sides to this debate.

    While Smith doesn’t like debate, she’s doing a good job at encapsulating the voices of others through one story. As the story progresses, the conflict is no longer just personal to the victim, but rather to the rioting that follows.

    Does she successfully project ‘universal realities’ in her play and how so?

  3.   Amanda Bourne Says:

    Hi Kaitlin!

    Your essay made me think further about what I discussed in my reading response – that is, the Black Arts Movement’s focus on functional art. Many of the playwrights and artists interviewed in the “Not a Rhyme Time” PBS special talked about what makes art art, and what makes art “black art” (the difference being, as Amiri Bakara discusses, political function. August Wilson says that “if it didn’t contribute in any way then it wasn’t black art”). Perhaps some of the politics in the art examined in this documentary is more “preachy” (as you say) than Smith, but I think Smith is still working in that same tradition of art-as-political or functional. Fires, as well as her other works from this series, provoke conversation, which is just as much a function of art as a statement about black reality is a function of art (and one could argue that Fires has both). I highly recommend taking a look at this documentary if you haven’t already!

  4.   Marguerite Rippy Says:

    This is a well-argued response that weaves the sources and the play together masterfully. My only two comments would be that pulling in a couple of specific quotes from “Fires in the Mirror” could help ground your analysis, and that you’ll want to keep thinking about whether the plays in this course are ever really interested in showing the world “as it is,” or if they are all pushing the world to change in various ways. For example, Pirandello, whom we are reading this week, is working 2 generations prior to Deavere Smith, but is equally interested in deconstructing the expectations of the division between art and reality. Just in a really different way than she does it. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on that boundary in class this week. Great job of applying critical readings to the play itself. One final note–I can’t seem to see your classmates’ comments on your work. If you have the “moderate” function set, can you approve your classmates’ comments so I can read them? Thanks.

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