Anna Deavere Smith is writing a new play — and it will feature fictional characters speaking made-up dialogue.
For most playwrights, this would not qualify as news. But Smith is a celebrated pioneer of documentary theater, and her much-imitated modus operandi is to perform solo shows whose scripts are drawn verbatim from interviews she has conducted herself. That’s how she created such acclaimed works as “Fires in the Mirror,’’ about racial strife in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood Crown Heights; “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,’’ exploring the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King police-brutality case; and “Let Me Down Easy,’’ about illness, the body, and the American health care system.
Smith sat down for an interview last week at the Seaport World Trade Center after she delivered an address to a women’s leadership conference organized by Simmons College.
Q. Do you see an acceleration of the kind of political and social engagement onstage that you helped bring to the forefront?
A. What I see happening is a surge of artists around the world who are finding new blends of virtuosity and the content of social change and social justice. There are many reasons for that. One is the surge of technology, so that we can communicate in ways we couldn’t before. People who were strangers are now familiar. I also think that Sept. 11 caused the world to open up in a different way. The tragedy of that was just an explosion that caused people to be more concerned about each other, and more concerned about people they didn’t know. People are interested in art and social change, in all forms, not just the theater. It’s an extraordinarily exciting time.
Q. Acting students now perform “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’’ as part of their training. Is it gratifying to see your work enter the curriculum?
A. That was the reason for the work. When I went to school, it was the old days, so the gods were men. [Laughs.] Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Shakespeare, Moliere. I spent so many Sundays rummaging around the basement of [San Francisco’s] City Lights bookstore looking for any character, any writer, who wasn’t Caucasian. I would marvel at the work of people on the stage, but then I would think, why is everybody in this audience white? That’s what I really started out to do, to make a more diverse company of characters to walk across the American stage. I don’t really need to spend my artistic time doing a whole lot more investigation of myself. I actually think it happens by my avid investigation of others, particularly people very different from me. When I’m working well with my tape recordings, they actually knock on the door of my subconscious. And all of a sudden it’s like: Boom! Here you are. It’s ultimately the man in the mirror.
Q. You do hundreds of hours of interviews for every piece you do. Do you ever find yourself thinking: Man, it would be easier to just write a play on this topic?
A. Yes. I don’t think people really realize how hard the work is. I’m working in direct relationship to a notion in the theater that was prevalent when I came out of school, which is that “Write about yourself” idea. I just thought the world needs something else. What I thought the world needed was a reach toward something not of the self. [But] my next play will not be written in the same way.
A. It will be a play that I don’t sit around and dream up, I do an enormous amount of research as I always do, and then I’m going to write a fictional play based on real research. I have had enough knocking on the door of my subconscious to feel that there’s this new kind of mix of my imagination and real people that hopefully audiences will feel is worth their time. And I never presumed that before, ever.
Q. Do you want to tell me what it’s about?
A. Education. It’s really kind of sad what’s happened to our education system. In that way, I am going home, metaphorically, because my mother was a teacher, all her friends were teachers, my aunts were all teachers. The black women who raised me brought a whole generation into another kind of existence. It’s noble work. And now, we only have bad things to say about teachers. We blame them for everything. It’s a real mess. So why am I walking in that mess? It’s very ambitious to assume I have anything I can say about this large, large topic, with so much activity, so much money being spent, and so much brainpower. It’s scarier than the riot plays or anything else. It’s much bigger. The riot plays were about a specific event.
Q. You are so many people onstage. What is the door through which you enter another human being and then embody them onstage?
‘There’s this new kind of mix of my imagination and real people that hopefully audiences will feel is worth their time.’
A. The thing that speaks to me the most is the idea that a child understands, an early, primal idea, which is: That’s not fair. When somebody tells me something in the course of the interview that’s not fair, I become very interested because I know what’s going to happen linguistically is that as they tell me about a moment or something that shattered their sense of who they were, they will then have to go to their most rich resources to make the world right again, in front of me. And that’s when I start working.Interview was condensed and edited. Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.