Anna Deavere Smith: My teacher in the 1980’s

“Hookers and drug addicts are all my agent sends me out for,” said Anna Deavere Smith to her acting class at New York University in 1983. Ms. Smith was articulating the reality of the lack of opportunities for performers of color in the entertainment industry at the time.

It was this frustration that led the African-American Ms. Smith to pursue creating the works of documentary theatre that she has become celebrated for, with the MacArthur Fellowship among her many honors. After recording interviews with people involved on a particular subject she would then fashion a script from these transcripts into a show where she would act out all the interviewees.

I was in that class where she vented and ever since, I’ve followed her rise in the world with great interest and admiration. She is now appearing in her latest solo show, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City through December 18, 2016.

“Acting for Non-Actors” was the title of the two-credit elective course that caught my attention in the class catalogue. I was majoring in Cinema Studies and due to shyness and uncertainty had previously suppressed my acting desires. I signed up for it and my life changed.

“How do you relate to authority?” Anna asked each of the students the first day. She was in her early 30’s, tall, lean, willowy with long flowing hair and radiant. Her expressive features had a warm roundedness with a beaming smile or a dramatic scowl. Her rich voice rang out loud and clear with staccato blasts of enthusiasm and feeling.

From our answers she would have a better idea on how to interact with us individually. “Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?” was another of her purposeful questions. She seemed to be genuinely interested in our responses and genuinely interested in us.

That we were not drama students excited and challenged her. We were a cross section of mostly those from the arts and even some business majors. Before we got to perform scenes from plays or films, there was a series of exercises she put us through. Warm ups, mirroring the actions of partners, and telling stories.

One of those involved telling a story that wasn’t true and the class and Anna would analyze it to determine if it was true. I told an elaborate and detailed tale of how I had dinner with Jack Lemmon at a friend’s apartment who was acting in movie with her. Everything in the recounting was true except it happened to someone else. It seems I misunderstood the point of the exercise and Anna was cranky about this.

“Oh! I could work with you for weeks!” Anna said to me. As my totally untrained voice tended to be monotone and Bronx accented, she gave me a cassette she had compiled to keep and listen to. It had excerpts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty and other celebrities speaking. The idea was for me to hear and emulate vocal variety.

“You have to be like a cat ready pounce!” was her declaration about the need for energy in acting that she physically demonstrated with a crouching and attacking pose.

A scene from Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was assigned to me and two other students. I was thrilled as it was one of my favorite plays. I was the crafty Lenny, a girl studying photography was the enigmatic Ruth, and a taciturn literature major was the passive Teddy. We were all too young and inexperienced for the roles but we ardently rehearsed and in performance achieved the necessary tension and mystery.

The scene in Annie Hall where Annie calls Alvy Singer on the phone to come over to kill a spider was assigned to an abrasive Quinn Cummings type girl and me. She had been a child performer so it was odd that she was in this class for beginners. She was also “difficult.” Anna had a personable film major direct us. The girl was quite resistant to his suggestions. Still, our performance was very good. My speech patterns perfectly matched Woody Allen’s dialogue and my idea of wearing colorful pajamas was greeted by laughter. Trouble occurred during Anna’s critique. The girl playing Annie Hall was prickly about criticism.

“Well, my objective was…”

“STOP!” Anna roared. “I have never used that word! I have never used that word because you all are not ready for that yet!”

The girl continued her offensive defense and there was back and forth.

“I don’t think you have anything to teach me.”

“WHOA! I don’t know who ever told you that you could act! Especially with that cutsey Patty Duke voice and mannerisms. You have a lot to learn!”

The girl did not quit the class and later was assigned a scene from Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The male character of the lawyer George was changed to the female Georgia so she could play it. Anna wanted us to have the experience of playing to a real audience so she arranged for our program of scenes to be done in a small theater in the drama department instead of in a classroom. Flyers were put around inviting people to attend.

All went well until All My Sons. The young man and woman also in it delivered their lines and now it was time for Georgia’s entrance. There was no Georgia. The young man began ad-libbing.

“I wonder where Georgia is. Georgia must be on her way. Georgia?!”

From back stage the audience could hear nervous giggling.

“Get out there!” Hissed Anna. There was more giggling. “I can’t! I can’t!” “Get out there!” Finally the girl went onstage and did the scene as if in a trance.

Anna invited several students to participate in a workshop outside of class for a modest fee. We would rehearse scenes and perform them at a Soho art gallery in for one evening performance. I eagerly signed up and was put into Christopher Durang’s wacky Beyond Therapy with a young man and a young woman. It was exhilarating to perform in front of a real audience and I made great comic use of a spiral staircase in the space.

The evening was also revelatory as it was there that I saw Anna perform for the first time, and in the format that became her trademark.

Television journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault became a part of the Civil Rights movement in 1961 as one of the first two African-Americans to attend the University of Georgia in 1961. There was a lot of conflict and her story was newsworthy at the time.

Anna had interviewed her and performed a monologue about that situation that evening as Ms. Gault. I was familiar with her having seen her on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report. Anna’s performance was commanding as she echoed Gault’s speech patterns and mannerisms. More importantly it was a channeling of a real person rather than a strict impersonation. Gault was in attendance and spoke with Anna onstage afterward which added even more excitement to the event.

Several students from “Acting for Non-Actors” became fired up to want to pursue acting after they graduated. Anna was very helpful with advice and assisted them with applications to Julliard and other schools. Having taken her class twice, and participated in a few of her workshops as my own graduation approached, I too sought her counsel. We set an appointment for us to meet at a café near her Upper West Side apartment. She treated me to an ice coffee and gave her opinions.

I had talent but was very intelligent and that could cause conflicts with directors, as the ability to surrender one’s will was often required in the profession. My voice still needed work. She advised against graduate studies in acting and that instead I should take ad hoc classes and suggested a teacher.

There was then a crash course in breaking into show business. A headshot photographer was recommended. Buying Backstage every week and sending headshots to projects I was right for. Buying the Ross Reports that had the contact information for casting and talent agents and mail headshots to them.

“What can I really tell you? You could walk into the room and be exactly what they’re looking for.” Our meeting jovially ended.

About a year later I was crossing 57th Street and Sixth Avenue and someone was yelling my name. It was Anna. She was recently back from a stay at Club Med and was gleaming in a summery outfit of a halter, and gauzy skirt. We stopped at a corner and had a brief catch up. Then we went our separate ways.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities premiered in 1992, at The Public Theatre to great acclaim. In it Anna explored the Crown Heights race riots of 1991. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, dealt with the Rodney King riots and was performed on Broadway in 1994. She was nominated for Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actress and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it. For both of these shows she won The Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance. The success of these works was followed by theatrical explorations of politics, the criminal justice system and health care in The United States and other topical subjects.

As her performing career ascended, she continued to teach acting at major institutions while also becoming a public figure. Besides numerous honorary degrees these theatrical achievements also led to a prolific career as an actress. There were roles in the filmsPhiladelphiaThe Human Stain, and Rachel Getting Married, and on television in The West WingNurse Jackie and Blackish. None of these characters were hookers or drug addicts.

Originally published on Theaterscene.net on October 17, 2016.

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