Last night at the Festival of the Arts speaker series, Anna Deavere Smith transformed herself into six different people, from Harvard Divinity School theologian Reverend Peter Gomes to former Texas governor Ann Richards to her own Aunt Lorraine and revered civil right activist and congressman John Lewis. The monologues, crafted around the notion of the meaning of grace, were delivered word for word, from tape-recorded interviews of the subjects. As Festival volunteer Cynthia Brown who introduced Smith said, “She does peoples’ souls.”
And she touched a few more last night, as well.
These monologues, “Reclaiming Grace in the face of Adversity,” gently illuminated social issues like health care, the disparity between rich and poor, civil rights—but were elevated by the higher context of the notion of grace: what it means, how it can restore a person’s humanity. Smith inhabited her characters, but stopped short of heavy-handed messaging. Ann Richards getting chemo for esophageal cancer showed how grace can be manifest through humor; Congressman Lewis embodied it by forgiving the very people who had beat him decades before on the Freedom Ride in the South. But it was Aunt Lorriane who showed us how love bestows grace, in the simplest form of human warmth.
Smith has been nominated for a Pulitzer and has a list of awards and honorary degrees a mile long, including a “genius grant” (aka MacArthur Fellowship) and the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.She known for her “documentary style” theater these days, but also gained a popular following in television roles in “Nurse Jackie” and the “West Wing” in addition to film roles in “Philadelphia” and “The American President,” among others. But it is her persona as a fine theatrical artist that defines her live work, and lit up the stage last night in the modest black box theater at the Festival.
Bravo to the Festival brainiacs for bringing her to Boca this year; her performance was both inspired and down to earth. Her show was intimate as well as interactive, and, miracle of miracles, no one even thought of leaving early.
As for Smith, she says simply that she is “trying to understand America and walk in peoples’ words.”
We were walking there with her last night.