Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

Anna Deavere Smith

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.

6 Responses to Anna Deavere Smith on the Beer Summit

  1. jonolan says:

    She’s very eloquent, but her post can be distilled down to, “Give us more money! We want more!”

    It’s rather sad that such eloquence is wasted on the tired pleading for more hand-outs and more money being taken from some and given to another.

  2. Anne Morriss says:

    I think her lack of specific recommendations on exactly how to improve public institutions invites some interpretation. I actually didn’t read it as “give us more money” myself, particularly in her healthcare analogy, which challenges our heavy use of high-cost systems (namely prisons and courts): “just as health care is about preventative activities and wellness, justice is about preventative activity and equity in all areas of society. There is a lot of concrete work to do. A lot that ends up in the courts or in hands of the police would not, if our public institutions were healthier.”

  3. jonolan says:

    Her article reaches the climax of:

    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.

    How can that be interpreted as other than another version of the same, tired old demand for money?

    Honestly, if you have another interpretation, I’d love to hear it. I’d truly like a reason to think better of Mz. Smith than I currently do.

  4. Anne Morriss says:

    Oh, I agree that’s she’s not proposing something that will be free, and words like “initiatives” smack of a type of public action that feels stale. But the same old, same old critique doesn’t ring true to me. She seems frustrated with old models and old thinking — wonders why “fifty years of movements” haven’t produced more measurable change and challenges us not to “go back to work the same way as before.” Her closing plea to move on from the answers that satisfied us in the 90s feels like a clean call for innovation — innovation that may still cost money and require public activism, but still innovation.

  5. jonolan says:

    Sorry, I just can’t see it. “Initiatives” and “resources” sounds like the same old plea for a hand-out or a redistribution of wealth, just into possible different programs.

    Add to that her comment about, “equity in all areas of society” is certainly the same rhetoric of the “equal rewards” style of of non-merit-based egalitarianism that has failed for 50+ years.

    I don’t know. Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s her.

  6. Anne Morriss says:

    Either way, it’s a fair discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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