Anna Deavere Smith
we were at a performance tonight, a one-woman show by Anna Deavere Smith (who some of you may know as the National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on The West Wing -she jokes about being the first black female National Security Advisor, before Condi Rice) on snapshots of her America. and i was fascinated. (not so much by Dean Danielle Allen's very very long introduction beforehand. i know this is the inaugural presentation of her new brainchild series, but that doesn't really justify boring the bejeezsus out of us for fifteen minutes before the main act.) she did some very...what is the word i'm searching for...what i imagine to be accurate and sharp impressions of various people from various walks of life: a Korean shopowner talking about the aftermath of race riots in LA and the Rodney King trials; a woman, in prison, on the death of her child by an abusive male partner; a cowboy, from Utah, who talks about toughness and optimism in a way that is touchingly real and romantic and hopeful and innocent. and she became these people -you look at her, and she is Anna Deavere Smith in a black shirt and black pants (and sometimes, a black duster pretending to be a trenchcoat), but the words coming out of her mouth are enlivened by some other spirit, some other understanding. it's not her speaking. it's Maria, the juror on the Rodney King trials, talking about how people behave under stress; it's Studs talking about moral slippage, and how there is no defining moment of American history. it was great, and awesome, and i'm glad i got the chance to go and see her in action. now she'll be more than just Nancy McNally to me.
i have to say that two characters stood out the most in my mind. while the others were interesting, in their contexts, i was really touched by the darkest character, and the lightest one. by the woman who talked, in a low, dead monotone, about the night her daughter died of the physical abuse endured at the hands of a man she thought she could 'fix'. about the long-term abuse she and her children by some other man suffered, and how she stayed because -what else could she do? and she thought, she really thought, she could fix him. i guess it struck me because she said something about people not wanting to stretch their negative imaginations; people don't want to believe that such darkness exists in the human spirit. perhaps other people do have such an optimistic view of human nature. i sure as hell don't. i may never have seen -or not known i was seeing- abused women, or children, or men, for that matter, but i don't have any trouble believing that people are capable of doing such things. and that women, or children, cannot imagine leaving their abusers because what else do they know? (now you know why i am a good Hobbesian.)
on the other hand, the cowboy who talks -and swigs his Coors Light- about rodeo when asked what is beauty -why it's the rodeo, he can't imagine anything better than being with the other guys at the rodeo, eating and drinking and making merry and knowing what you want to do. sure, having a ranch is nice, but being at the rodeo, now that's living. his wife pokes fun at him -thinks that without a college degree he's not smart enough to talk to college professors who fly into Utah to talk to him and ask him questions- but his answers are spot on. what's toughness? she asks him, and he replies it's having his broken nose fixed without anasthesia so that he can go back to the rodeo and ride again right afterward. and as a bonus, he can breathe again, after they fix his nose, for the first time since he broke it the first rodeo he ever went to. that almost made me cry. it sure as hell made me smile.
i guess it's hard for me to hold both people in my mind at the same time. to remember that while there are bad evil nasty cruel animal-people in the world, there are happy optimistic cheerful tough and brave people too. it's hard to balance when to expect nothing or expect the worst; and when to take a little leap of faith and believe in the goodness of the human heart. (no prizes for guessing which route i usually take!) maybe it'll be a little easier for me to remember now, with a picture of a beer-drinking, broken-nosed cowboy in my mind.