Wednesday, March 02, 2005

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.


At 3:31 PM, March 02, 2005, Blogger SM said...

[Let me, while I sit here in the Science canteen reading your blog, listening to Craig David sing, watching the rain splatter on the dirt ground to form puddles, feeling the faint breeze carry raindrops to my face, and thinking about X-ray diffraction, write a comment..... =P]

sketches? snapshots?

I sorta remember writing something similar a few days ago, about the myth that human nature is essentially so good that people will always do the morally best thing. (That was inspired by something else though.)

Remember duality (Ms Yeo)? Over where I am there are lots of people who are, interestingly enough, both "bad evil nasty cruel" and "happy optimistic cheerful tough brave". It's not so hard to imagine once you see such things. And maybe that's how people who are naive are young, and people who are maniacally cynical are just young too. =)

Different facets. ;) And I shudder to think what the guy I tried to pick up thinks of me too, cos I fit neither half-profile well, by any standard.... (That's just amusing not something that I'm worrying about. =) )

At 8:22 PM, March 02, 2005, Blogger Tym said...

Fyi, if you didn't know already, Neil Gaiman is scheduled to make an appearance at your school too.

I'm so jealous :P Anna Deavere Smith and Neil Gaiman in the same year? There oughta be a law against that, so the rest of us don't feel us deprived.

At 9:23 PM, March 02, 2005, Blogger J. said...

tym -as a matter of fact i did find out last night that Neil Gaiman is supposedly going to be here sometime next month. but in typical 'the U of C puts things together crazily at the last minute and then spams everyone twenty thousand times to make sure they know about it' way they haven't announced date or topic. but rest assured i will fight tooth and nail for a ticket. =) (it'll be the second time this academic year i get to see him! -bouncebounce-)

sm -yeah, people often manage to be many things at the same time, although i don't think being evil and good at the same time is possible. it's one thing to be bad and good at the same time; all it requires is a certain level of mediocrity. but for me, being evil requires a certain level of intensity that blocks out capacity for goodness.

At 4:38 PM, March 03, 2005, Blogger SM said...

:) Good and evil as a binary classification versus a continuous spectrum? ahah. That's a pretty substantial point of argument all by itself...

At 10:46 AM, March 04, 2005, Blogger perception said...

no fair, you get to see Neil Gaiman... *starts to whine then thinks better of it*

anyway, just dropping by to wish you a VERY HAPPY birthday!

At 1:38 PM, March 06, 2005, Blogger J. said...

thanks, senior :) i had a reasonably good one!


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