In Performance and in Lecture, Anna Deavere Smith Aims to Build Hope

Anna Deavere Smith spoke Tuesday night at Duke.
Anna Deavere Smith spoke Tuesday night at Duke.

During a time of inequality and discrimination against minorities, as long as there is compassion and humanity, there is hope, Anna Deavere Smith said in a talk at Duke Tuesday night.

The event, “From Rodney King to Michael Brown: Anna Deavere Smith on the Narrative of Ferguson,” highlighted the intersection between artistry and social justice. The playwright, actor and professor embodied numerous personas to provide a chronological exploration of racial tension in America, using her interviews and research to bring the one-woman show to life.

One vignette, “A Rap on Race,” featured Smith performing a dialogue between Margaret Mead, a white anthropologist trying to make sense of racial conflicts of the 1970s, and the African American novelist and essayist James Baldwin.

“It’s a terrible omen when you see the American flag on somebody’s car and realize that’s your enemy,” Smith said, as Baldwin. “In principle, it’s your flag too. The man who’s driving the car with the American flag is going to kill you. “

Smith also performed a snippet from her play on the 1992 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, sharing  insights of people such as Chief of Police Daryl Gates and real estate agent Elaine Young.

“Some people called it an uprising. Some people called it a revolution. Some people called it a riot, and the politician called it 'the unfortunate events in Los Angeles,'” Smith said.

Smith continued with an emotional monologue based on interviews with Kevin Moore, a friend of Freddie Gray, who passed away in custody after being arrested by the Baltimore Police Department.

“Have you ever been to a place where you don’t feel tired, you just tired of being tired?,” she said, speaking as Moore. “Where you fed up, and there’s nothing else left, and you can’t get any lower? Pass that. That’s where I’ve been.

“You got to keep climbing, you got to keep fighting, you got to keep praying, you got to keep climbing, you got to do all the things you know to do that help you get yourself stronger because in the end, you’re going to need all the strength that you can muster to get yourself up out of this hole.”

In her newest play on the school to prison pipeline, Smith embraces the personalities of Michael Tubbs, a Stanford graduate running for mayor in Stockton, Linda Wayman, principal of Strawberry Mansion High School, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at New York University.

Tubbs, Noguera, and Wayman all drew attention to the early exposures of inequality that becomes seeded in the youth. 

“Before I could turn a page, every student in that classroom knew somebody that had been shot and was the victim of a violent death...” the Tubbs character said. “It’s just so routine that a six year old will actually look you in the eye so matter of factly. What happens at 7, 8, 9, 10?”

After her performances, Smith reminded listeners that the stories she enacts, while threaded with grief, also offer knowledge and hope.

“I spent my adult life really walking around America trying to become America by putting myself in other people’s words the way you might think about putting yourself in other people’s shoes,” Smith said. “I’ve learned a lot in the ways that we live with our racial conflicts, and the extent to which some Americans can extend a radical welcome to those from elsewhere and some can’t.”

“To me, Michael Tubbs is hope. To me, Kevin Moore who, in the midst of his outrage of what happened to his friend, Freddie Gray, steps forward and shows you his humanity … and opens your heart, I hope … To me, that’s hopeful because he is fighting.

“I feel that these stories are all stories of hope.”

The event, part of the Jean Fox O’Barr Distinguished Speaker Series, was hosted by Duke University’s Baldwin Scholars program and co-sponsored by the Muglia family and by Duke’s Theater Studies and Women’s Studies departments, Gates Millennium Scholars, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and the Office of Housing, Dining and Residence Life.