Anna Deavere Smith has one heck of a resume. An actress with roles in the movie The American President and on the television series The West Wing, her one-woman shows Fires in the Mirror and Twilight in Los Angeles have been hailed for their political charge and their unapologetic representations of racial conflict. She is also an academic—a tenured professor of arts at Stanford University—and a visiting scholar to institutions like Yale and Harvard. In 1996, she received a five-year, $280,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to fund her work on “race and identity.”
The source of her fame, on and off campus, appears to be her surefire method for gathering dramatic material to perform in her one-woman shows. With tape recorder in hand, she interviews people in the middle of social and political maelstroms. Smith uses their words and voices to make them into parts she can play on stage. She apparently has a facility for mimicking the way other people sound: not only their accents, but the way they pronounce consonants, vowels, phonemes of all kinds; the way they take in air as they speak; the smack of their lips; their loudness; and so on. She uses this talent to bring her interviewees to life on stage.
House Arrest premiered in New York in early 1998 and was performed around the country, undergoing several revisions based on then-current events. The show lacked what Aristotle called “unity of action.” It had a setting, however—Washington, D.C.—and a main character or subject—the American president—though the precise relationship between the whirlwind of people and things and events in the show escaped many of her reviewers.
But the production was, as Andrew Ferguson noted in The Weekly Standard, “a triumph of grantsmanship,” with a list of sponsors that included the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Cafritz Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a group of Washington socialites led by Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee. The production budget exceeded $2 million.
Much of the work that led up to House Arrest is chronicled in Smith’s new book Talk to Me, which contains elements of memoir, reflection, reportage, anecdote, transcribed interviews, miniature essays, and much else, representing a scattershot of items on Thomas Jefferson, American women in prison, 1990s gender theory, theater, race, and what it is like to have universities and foundations catering to your every whim. Unfortunately, the parts do not add up to a whole. Reading Talk to Me, one finds little continuity from chapter to chapter or from paragraph to paragraph. Most disturbingly, one even comes across passages with no continuity from sentence to sentence.
One thing the book does get across, though unintentionally, is a portrait of the not-so-struggling artist. To develop House Arrest, Washington’s Arena Stage provides office space for Smith and her many researchers. When Smith first comes to Washington, an assistant is setting up house for her when she arrives. When she goes on the road, she has her own advance man, who flies ahead and pre-drives all her routes so she doesn’t get lost. In February 1997, she takes it easy for a month at a villa on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, courtesy of a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.
If there is an organizing theme in Talk to Me, it is the human voice as used by Americans in moments of self-revelation. But that’s a big if, because the reader ultimately learns very little about this subject. Still, “voice” comes up a lot—with all the connotations that word carries nowadays of poetry, the disenfranchised, identity politics, and so on—though rarely with any lesson or information attached.
The problem may be that print is the most unlikely medium for such a discussion. One wants to hear—literally, with one’s ears—what the author has in mind when she describes “a trochee in the second beat.” A trochee is an inverted iamb (as in iambic pentameter, the meter favored by Shakespeare). A trochee “happens when the iamb goes upside down. So that instead of Buh DUH, you get BUH duh.” Seen on the page, such writing makes the reader say, Huh?
Great expectations are followed by puny accomplishments throughout the book. Although Smith spends a fair amount of space examining the gestures and words of well-known Washington characters, she admits that her method “doesn’t always tell us as much as we think it does—particularly if the subject is used to being scrutinized.” This makes one wonder why she is examining political people, who by and large are used to being scrutinized.
Smith also gives much attention to the issue of race, but as with voice, there is barely any payoff. Over and over again, the author looks back at her childhood in desegregated Baltimore, which as far as this reader can tell was a completely unexceptional experience. Smith brings up subjects like a farmer scattering seeds, indifferent to the fact that few of them ever take root.
Take Nancy, who Smith says was a little girl in her seventh grade class. Nancy had red hair and was popular. She “never said anything racist, but there seemed to be the possibility or the threat that she would . . . . She made us all very uneasy, very uncomfortable.” By “us,” Smith presumably means the black students in the class, though she doesn’t say so.
Nor does Smith say how Nancy made the black students uncomfortable. Anyway, Smith never mentions Nancy again, and her appearance in this book amounts to no more than a couple of paragraphs that have nothing to do with anything. It is times like these when one wonders if Talk to Me isn’t the most lazily conceived and lazily executed book money can buy.
And what of the things Smith came to Washington for? What is life like in the nation’s capital? What do we need to know about the presidency? Mildly interesting material is found in transcripts of Smith’s interviews with journalists and politicos, though their views on Washington and politics and the Clinton presidency are generally familiar. Barney Frank, for one, says nothing here that he didn’t say quite clearly and forcefully during the impeachment hearings. Still, his comments and those of many others generally have a point, thereby offering an important contrast to the rest of the book.
David Skinner is associate editor of The Weekly Standard.