It seemed an important question about civic dialogue for a conversation with Anna Deavere Smith: Did she think it was still possible?
The question was left up in the air at the end of her latest book, Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics. The book provides a detailed account of the years she spent in Washington, studying the presidency and the press in much the same way she examined Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood, and Los Angeles in the early 1990s. Back then, hundreds of interviews with people from all walks of life resulted in Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, two one-woman shows that documented our culture's difficulties in dealing with issues involving race and ethnicity.
Her time in D.C. produced the controversial play House Arrest, and also arguably prepped her for subsequent roles in both the 1995 film The American President and the television series The West Wing. But Smith's sojourn also left her with a series of disturbing questions about our national discourse. Those concerns could only be heightened given events in Washington since the publication of the book.
Bush became president, an ensuing "war on terrorism" began and the country slowly edged to the brink of war with Iraq. In recent months, one could conclude that a national monologue has supplanted the national dialogue which Smith notes could take place in Washington. Meanwhile, the media's pundit class hasn't monopolized the public conversation less in three years' time. On some levels, neither government nor the media seems to be listening to the American people.
So, in this time of war, is civic dialogue still possible?
"Not only is it possible--I wouldn't use the word 'required'--I think it is absolutely bursting to happen at this moment," Smith says. "Maybe not in huge circles: it can't happen like what happens when people turn on the television and watch Survivor or Bachlorette.
"But I think we have to settle for the grass-roots ways it can happen, and work diligently with the expectation that that is going to grow into something. That's how social change has always happened anyway.
"I don't think we can count on the media to engage us," she continues. "We really expect too much of the media. In the end, they are a big business. And it's a mistake to equate democracy and capitalism ... "
Or democracy with a free press? I interject.
"The press is not free. It's really owned."
Smith returns to Duke University this week for a Friday evening performance at Page Auditorium. Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change, is the keynote performance for a weekend symposium on "Race and Gender in Global Perspective," sponsored by Duke's Women's Studies program.
It's a perspective that Smith has decided she has to seek out on her own. After recent trips to Brazil and Peru, she has concluded that the American character and identity can't be truly measured with readings taken only from the inside. "Absolutely not," she notes, "especially not now. I'm talking about a whole new stage of work that I have to prepare for." The work will take Smith to places where she "can go to see America from a different point of view."
"You know, we're an empire," Smith says. "If I stayed just on the inside with our domestic issues, I would fail to see, appreciate and think about us as an empire."
But when we spoke by phone last week, Smith had larger civic conversations on her mind. Her prime candidate for facilitating those conversations? The citizen artist.
It's an expectation based on one of the more surprising findings from her three-year summer Institute for Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard: "In this historical moment, now more than ever, artists actually have the public trust," she notes, "at a time when many other kinds of professions and institutions do not. So as artists we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the public and to engage them in the issues of our time. This is the time for us to seize that."
Smith asks, "The question is, as artists, do we use our sensitivities and our ability to attract attention only for our own personal glorification? Or do we use them in order to convene people around the issues of their time?"
"It isn't easy," she notes, "because you have to be at the top of your form technically, and have a lot of energy to spend with the public. That's not spending it with them just to talk about who you are as a celebrity, but to really engage with the problems of our time. That is a lot of physical, emotional and intellectual work, and I do think it calls for educating artists in a different way than they have been in the past."
Smith notes a change in the theater's artists would necessitate changes off-stage as well: "It also means that the audience has a different responsibility, too.
"It basically means, 'No fair standing in awe of us, right? You're expected to do something too, besides just sit here and watch. Let's hear what you have to say--and hopefully, what are you going to do. We're here refining our skills, to make a call to cause people to think and feel differently,'" she says. "What are your skills? What do you bring to the table? What are you going to do?"
All of which is part of Smith's ongoing quest to achieve a new kind of engagement with the audience. "It's a proposal about art which is actually probably very old, and at the very core of what democracy is all about," she says. "It's about an involved citizenry."
"In the end, it proposes to the audience that, even as we are delighted to have a standing ovation, we don't want them so smitten with us that they forget about what it is they could do."
This impulse turned the final act of the Los Angeles production of House Arrest into an open conversation with the audience, and as the L.A. Times noted, Smith's gambit paid off in the most engaged and diverse audience Los Angeles saw in 1999. "It was saying 'This is how much we can say so far about our presidency,'" she says. "We want to know what you think.'"
An unlikely model for the change Smith has in mind--for theater and politics in America--came from her experience in, of all places, an old Southern church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1996. In Talk To Me, she writes of her experience in the congregation at the Rising Star Baptist Church. "The droning voices, the sounds, the community. People were talking to Jesus, and they were talking to each other. The Preacher, Elijah C. Weaver, weighed about 350 pounds; a very dark-skinned man in a purple suit under his white robe. His preaching was more sounds than words."
In the book, a redemptive telling of the story of Daniel in the lions' den, and "the drone of the music, the sweat of all of us" in singing "Amazing Grace," Smith asks, "What if democracy felt like that?"
As our conversation closes, I ask Smith to take the question further.
"What I meant there is it's not just the fact of the spiritual uplifting--it's that everybody is participating in its happening.
"You know, it's the complete opposite of the Episcopal church, right? Elijah C. Weaver is just one figure there. He doesn't assume that he can be the complete conductor of it. He's responsible for the words. But everybody there is in that church for one reason and one reason only: They want to meet Jesus this Sunday morning. They want to convene Jesus right now. And they all come prepared to do the work."
"That's what I'm talking about," Smith says. "That's what I'd like the theater to feel like."
"And," she closes, "if a democracy were like that, it would be extraordinary."