Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing diverse characters in powerful, thoroughly researched, one-woman shows about events that shake us at the foundation such as the L.A. riots. Smith is among the great observers of our time. She holds a mirror up at an angle that always illuminates and sometimes burns.
I saw her perform last fall in Let Me Down Easy, a show that explores the presence and absence of grace. The characters she channeled ranged from Rwandan genocide survivors to a horse trainer in Kentucky. Some part of me was scared to be less than 20 feet away from her. I wasn’t sure I could handle the truths she was about to reveal. She let me down easy. When I saw her the next day at a gym around Cambridge, it took all of my self-control not to interrupt her stretching and thank her for being gentle.
Smith weighed in on the Beer Summit this week in a blog entry on The Huffington Post. She spends a lot of the post working through her own conflicted relationship with the police, and then lands with a strong challenge to the prescriptions being offered for making good use of this “teachable moment.” She suggests that most of what we’re hearing is too soft, too 1998, a year that no one has examined like Smith. We now need to pivot, she argues, from teaching and learning to action:
What concerns me about the “heated debate” is that as radio hosts and guests talk, I hear the same kind of language that I heard — and studied — in the ’90s. Talk of “safe places to have conversations,” for example. That’s not what we need right now. This is not about conversations and “learning about one another.” We don’t need salons. We need initiatives and resources to spark the work of building a stronger society, one with public spaces that allow for shared excellence.