In her one-woman shows, Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated writer and actress Anna Deavere Smith spins interviews into a theatrical performance. Weaving the words she has collected into an evocative tapestry, she brings to life characters ranging from a photographer in Iraq to a Harvard theologian to a Kentucky Derby jockey to a Rwanda genocide survivor.
Now, in a special Tuesday night series following the performance of her new work — “Let Me Down Easy” — for the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.), Smith speaks directly to the audience, this time using her own words about her own experiences.
On Sept. 16, for the first installment of “Grace in the Dark: A Series of Conversations With Anna Deavere Smith,” the actress sat down on the stage at the Loeb Drama Center with Homi Bhabha, the Anne R. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of Harvard’s Humanities Center.
Their give-and-take discussion focused in large part on the concept of “grace,” a theme that runs through “Let Me Down Easy.” Smith’s performance spoke of the simple grace that comes from admiring the brilliance of flowers by evoking Harvard’s Elaine Scarry working in her garden. But she drew on fiercer aspects of grace, as well, with the words of Harvard’s Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes; James Cone of the Union Theological Center; and journalist Samantha Power, currently affiliated with the Harvard Kennedy School.
“What you have done is to get us to think about grace as anxious, grace as ambivalent, and grace as deeply problematic,” Bhabha said to Smith as the audience listened intently.
So many people “work so hard to say, ‘Never again.’ At the same time, the history of memory, the ethics of memory says, ‘Again and again and again,’” Bhabha said. “Is grace a recognition that we have to live between these two incompatible and contradictory things? Or is grace an escape — somehow a redemption — from that?”
“No, I don’t think it’s an escape. It’s work,” Smith quickly responded. “It’s never an escape in any form.” Yet, she acknowledged, “grace” remains a uniquely Christian concept and she described how she puzzled over the words of the hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
“We sing it in the black church. And we sing it at peace rallies. It’s as if we don’t take on the ‘me,’ we don’t take on the ‘wretch,’” she said.
“This hard work of grace is part of our own survival,” Bhabha added.
Bhabha asked Smith about the “risky relationship” she has with her interview subjects. “It must be terrifying to you to play all these people, all these moments, all these histories. And it must be terribly risky for those who speak to you,” he added, as the audience laughed.
Smith smiled. “It’s not the mirroring of the person that you are after,” she explained. Rather, “What you take from the person is a moment and an experience and then build something around it.
“I feel glad that all of the people who are in this show are people who, first of all, have a very deep relationship to language. To have the opportunity to speak the language of Peter Gomes is extraordinary. To talk about grace the way he does. The same is true of your beautiful Elaine Scarry. The opportunity to say that in the case of the garden, the flowers will die but the basic thing is that they do come back. So people at a given moment say so much.”
She cited the eloquence of a young woman who survived the Rwanda genocide, who told her: “If you stone someone to death, it takes time. But you can’t think if you’re cutting someone’s head off.”
Smith marveled at the comment: “Who would think of that? I wouldn’t be able to write that. So I feel very excited about taking that excursion in a person’s words.”
Audience questions included one from Stephen P. Marks of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), who asked about the “moments of engagement” between the abstract reflections of grace and grace in action.
“I do think the exemplar of grace is to help, to do very concrete things in terms of taking care of children — children nobody wants, who don’t have parents, who have AIDS,” Smith replied. Grace is the person “who tells them what’s going to happen and [is] with them when they die and holds them in their heart forever. In each section [of the play] there is someone who exemplifies for us what grace is, in a very practical way.”
Smith relishes such connection with theatergoers, who, she said, bring their own ideas of mortality and grace. “I’m very interested in engagement with the audience,” she said, as the crowd dispersed. “Something else happens in this episode when they speak. I like that.”
Gideon Lester, A.R.T. director for the 2008-09 season, said Smith’s work lends itself to audience interaction. “It is already in conversation with so many different constituencies,” he said. “It’s the perfect example of the kind of thing the Humanities Center is trying to do, which is to bring everyone into the conversation.”