March 28, 2021—I recently had the phenomenal opportunity to see an intimate, virtual interview with one of our nation’s greatest artistic treasures—the playwright, actress, author, NYU professor and scholar Anna Deveare Smith, which was sponsored by the Signature Theatre’s Artistic Director’s Circle and conducted by Artistic Director Paige Evans.
Credited with creating a new form of theater in which she combines the journalistic techniques of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance, Anna currently is the Residency One Playwright program at Signature. The program produces a series of plays from the body of work of one playwright, offering unprecedented support, while giving audiences the rich, in-depth experience of an accomplished artist’s body of work.
Signature Theatre was scheduled last year to produce Anna’s seminal one-woman show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, using a cast for the first time. However, the theater closed last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic just as the production was in rehearsals. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, explores the events following the acquittal of four, white police officers who were videotaped brutally beating a Black man named Rodney King. The acquittal resulted in six days of urban uprisings and social upheaval.
I first met Anna in the ‘90s in preparation for the production of Twilightat the Public Theater, which was being directed by George C. Wolfe. I remember her saying to me, “I must have a diverse audience.” “Of course,” I replied, and then set out to make sure the audiences were not just African American, but also Korean and Latino, reflecting the diverse people she interviewed for the play. This charge also enabled me to connect with numerous multicultural organizations who were able to experience the power of Twilight, while introducing them to the Public Theater.
Since that time, I have had the privilege to support the marketing of and audience development for several of Anna’s plays. I am in such awe of her artistry; her commitment to honest narratives; her creativity, and her humanity. That’s why I want the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to check out this virtual interview. Among the interesting points that Anna shares is how her Shakespearean training at the American Conservatory Theater led to the development of her pioneering theatrical process, for which she has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal from then-President Barack Obama.
Recognizing the parallels between Rodney King’s case and the murder of George Floyd, Anna recently conducted a series of candid conversations as part of the SigSpace Summits on Zoom, which was titled Twilight 2020. She and her guests discussed how the protests for the arrests of George Floyd’s killers and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement echo the events around the arrest and beating of Rodney King. The people with whom she spoke included the former Los Angeles gang member, Twilight Bey, for whom the play, Twilight, is named.
Last summer, New Yorker magazine staff writer Vinson Cunningham wrote about the COVID-19-induced postponement of the Twilight production. He noted how the current racial and social climate made Anna Deveare Smith’s voice and work more important than ever. He also suggested that the federal government could “reanimate the Federal Theatre Project and commission hundreds of Smith-style projects, inviting communities around the country into a more complete understanding of themselves.”
I believe this is a great idea—a call-to-arms of theater artists to help communities not only see and hear themselves but also, in the spirit of Anna Deveare Smith, make it possible for them to see their interconnections with each other. As always, I want to know what you think. Please share your comments below.