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Wisdom Watch: Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

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Wisdom Watch: Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

Performing Arts

Wisdom Watch: Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

Wisdom Watch: Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

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Playwright Anna Deavere Smith has been hailed as the "most exciting individual in American theater". Smith talks about her extraordinary career and her latest project, a play about change in Washington, DC, called The Americans.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I have a thought about Sarah Palin's big announcement. It's my weekly commentary, but first, Anna Deveare Smith. She's been hailed as the most exciting individual in American theater. She's a playwright, professor, performer, a professional listener.

In her latest venture, she co-stars with Edie Falco in "Nurse Jackie," a comedy series that premieres tonight on Showtime. And she's already on to her next project, a play that looks at change in Washington, D.C., titled "The Americans." Anna Deveare Smith is never one to shy away from political topics, and she's also joined the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think-tank in Washington, D.C., as artist-in-residence, and she's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. ANNA DEVEARE SMITH (Playwright): Great, nice to talk to you.

MARTIN: Very unusual for a think-tank to have an artist-in-residence. How did you two find each other?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I had met John Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress. And I just mentioned to him over the big inaugural weekend that I would love to find a way to come in out of Washington in the next couple of years because it's such a historic moment, and he told me to give him a call. So it's really his creativity, I think, to think that an artist might have something to offer their community.

MARTIN: And one of the other things that I was intrigued by is the fact that you've got a couple of projects going on at once. You've got another play that is premiering in the fall about health care. And people are very interested, I noticed, in checking in with you while your work is in progress, which I think it unusual for playwrights. Most of the time, we don't stick our heads into the garage while the tinkering is still going on. We wait for the garage door to be opened. Why do you think that is?

Ms. SMITH: Maybe it's because I open the garage door. Here's what it is, I think. I open the garage door in the first place, right? I don't work in a shut-down garage. The project that I've been working on for many years is called "On the Road: A Search for American Character," and so the on-the-road part is a very important part of that title. I've been going around America, interviewing people with the idea of trying to learn as much about this country as I could in my lifetime. I open up that door, and maybe that's the place where journalists and I find each other interesting.

MARTIN: And the works that I think most people will have seen or are familiar with are "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," and those are about crisis. One is, of course, about the conflict in Crown Heights, New York, after a racial incident there, and then the other is about the Los Angeles riots. But there's a lot of intense feeling that comes out in the course of the interviewing that you do and the work that is presented. And I just want to play a short clip from "On the Road: A Search for American Character," which is one of the pieces you mentioned. Let me just play a short clip, and then we'll talk more about it.

(Soundbite of play, "On the Road: A Search for American Character")

Ms. SMITH: (As character) Why do we have to be here now? We didn't qualify for medical treatment, no food stamps, no GR, no welfare, anything. Many African-American who never work got minimum amount of money to survive. We didn't get any because we have a car and a house, and we are high-tech payer.

MARTIN: And just to clarify for people who aren't sure what they're hearing, you are playing the role of a Korean woman whom you interviewed, Korean-American woman whom you interviewed. I think a lot of journalists are also interested in this question, is how do you get people to tell you such deep truths and feelings, which we are very often used to not sharing with each other, particularly outside of our own circle?

Ms. SMITH: Well, when I was a girl, my grandfather had said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. So, given the fact that I want to feel what people are feeling or supposed to even get close to what people are feeling, I'm looking for people who have strong feelings about things. And in the case of the clip that you've just played, Mrs. Jung Sun-Han(ph), whose liquor store was burned down during the Los Angeles riots back in the '90s, I knew if I went to Los Angeles that there would be people expressing a sense of loss, or people would feel misjudged.

You know, different from journalism, part of what a journalist has to do is get the story, and people may not want to cooperate with that. In my case, I'm first of all looking for the people who would like to go and shout from a mountaintop: This is what happened. I want you to know. So it's a little bit different, although my process might be similar in terms of what our goals are.

MARTIN: What is the interview and process like for your current project? Because as we've mentioned, a number of your previous projects have been rooted in times of crisis. And you can understand where after a crisis people want to understand the experience and might be motivated to talk about it as a way to process the experience, but what about for this current project? As I understand it, one of the things that interests you is coming to Washington at a time when we - many people have a sense that something big is happening but we're not really sure what.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. Part of what I plan to do at the Center for American Progress is be available in the event that something does happen.

MARTIN: What do you think is happening? I mean, the election last year was -you know, we're still talking about what it actually means. We were talking about it all along, what it means. I mean these huge crowds, not just in the United States, but around the world, particularly for one candidate who wound up being the prevailing candidate, this history-making figure in the form of the first African-American or biracial, if you will, president of this country with such a history of racial conflict. And now - but now we're down to the business of governing. Do you have any initial clues for us about what you think this means?

Ms. SMITH: I don't have any initial clues, but I suppose that what I felt characterized all of it is that Sam Cooke song sung on the mall by Bettye Lavette, "A Change is Gonna Come." And that line, "it's been a long time coming." And I think that what Obama represented to people - for people obviously is that desire for change, right? And I hope that that desire is big enough all around that changes do come. I mean the one that I'm immediately interested in is the one in health care. You know, inevitably we have to have a better system than we have now. Is this the moment when that system will be created? So, but you know change is - it is abundant.

Will it affect education in terms of who gets educated? Who can afford to be educated is something that concerns me as a teacher, a professor here at New York University. It's a big, big, big, big time. I don't need to tell you that. And I want to be around in case I can go running across the street just like you to turn my tape recorder on.

MARTIN: Oh, like they're really letting me in just like that. But, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: You probably have better ways of getting in than me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I don't know about that. But, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Anna Deveare Smith about art and politics and her latest work. Tell me more a little bit if you would, about "Let Me Down Easy," your work about health care. Now that's another thing that I think, you know, who does a play about health care? But how did that come to you?

Ms. SMITH: Well, you know a few years ago the head of internal medicine at Yale Medical School asked me to come there and interview doctors and patients, and to look at the doctor-patient relationship. And I got to Yale, and I turned on my tape recorder, and I literally only had to ask one question. What happened to you? And I mean they were singing songs, bringing in their grandchildren, showing me their scars. You know, again, the people who want to speak from the mountaintop; this is the case of the patients. And the doctors too, because they find themselves, you know, caught in systems that don't work for them, you know, with expectations that they can't deliver. So it was an extraordinary experience that just stuck with me. And so I've really spent the last eight years going to hospitals, cancer centers, to learn more about what people do in any kind of a crisis.

MARTIN: I can't let you go without talking about your new role in the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie."

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: You play a hospital administrator.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Help me with the name, Mrs.?

Ms. SMITH: Mrs. Akalitus.

MARTIN: Akalitus.

Ms. SMITH: Yeah. I kind of - I lucked out that way. The last time I was in Washington I was very interested in the Clinton White House. At the same time I happened to be a show you probably heard about called "The West Wing."

MARTIN: I've heard a little bit about that. Yes.

Ms. SMITH: So it was never clear in my mind which was the real briefing room from having really been in a briefing room at the White House and which was the briefing room in my mind from being Nancy McNally. That was actually "The American President," the film "American President"...

MARTIN: I know, you are always playing press secretaries.

Ms. SMITH: I know...

MARTIN: You are so well prepared.

Ms. SMITH: Well, Too tall McCall and then the national security advisor. And in this case, now that I'm interested in health care, I happened to be...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: ...had an opportunity to play Mrs. Akalitus in "Nurse Jackie" starring the extraordinary Edie Falco, and it is a hoot. This is the first time I've been in a comedy and I play a perfectly hideous hospital administrator...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: ...who's always trying to exert her authority and it never quite works.

MARTIN: Here, let's play a short clip just to people know what we're talking about.

(Soundbite of "Nurse Jackie")

Ms. SMITH: (as Mrs. Akalitus) Ears just don't jump into toilets do they?

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (as Nurse Jackie) That's a rhetorical question, right?

Ms. SMITH: (as Mrs. Akalitus) Nurse Jackie, your student found this in the lady's room.

Ms. MERRITT WEVER: (as Zoey Barkow) Floating in the toilet. I was just standing there. It's from that guy you treated yesterday.

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (as Nurse Jackie) What guy? Actually you were the last one to handle it, Zoey.

Ms. MERRITT WEVER: (as Zoey Barkow) Wait, what?

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (as Nurse Jackie): I handed it to you, sweetie.

Ms. MERRITT WEVER: (as Zoey Barkow) No. But I...

Ms. SMITH: (as Mrs. Akalitus) I have no choice but to initiate an internal investigation.

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (as Nurse Jackie) I resent what you're insinuating. Why on earth would my nursing student flush a man's ear down the toilet?

Ms. MERRITT WEVER: (as Zoey) But I'm the one who found it.

Ms. EDIE FALCO: (as Nurse Jackie) Mm-hmm. And there are firemen who set their own fires just to call them in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, what a sympathetic character she is.

Ms. SMITH: She's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: She's not sympathetic at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: So that's why and that - right in that scene I then pick up a cup of coffee, which has got drugs in it unbeknownst to me and I spend the rest of that episode very high.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: So you know because I'm so, you know, a...

MARTIN: We can't say it but it rhymes with.

Ms. SMITH: Well, yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. SMITH: Bad things happen to me and you know there are mishaps that are comic, so I have a real good time on that show.

MARTIN: Did your reporting around the health care industry inform your performance?

Ms. SMITH: Oh, definitely. Definitely. First of all, I've had the opportunity to be in and out of a variety of hospitals to do my research. And you know, there's always plenty of Mrs. Akalitus's around, not just from my research, but I think we all have the experience of running into an administrator who is totally by the books and no heart whatsoever. We all know what that feels like. It only takes walking into the door of most doctor's offices or hospitals at this point, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Did you...

Ms. SMITH: But Mrs. Akalitus is someone who really lacks the heart and soul.

MARTIN: What I wanted to ask you about that, did your reporting around the health care, your deep dig into the health care industry give you any sympathy for her as a person trapped in a bad system or do you still see her as just bad? She needs to go home?

Ms. SMITH: No. I think that's another really wonderful question that sort of gets at the very core of the very beginnings of things that we learn in acting is that the job is not to judge who we perform, and that's the case in all of my work is to find a way to love them. And the beautiful thing about this show and the writing on this show is that over time, over the 11 episodes that I shot, you get to learn some things about Mrs. Akalitus and her vulnerabilities and the things that she's lost and the things that she's seen and why she ends up being like that. So I'm definitely the kind of person who believes that people don't just start out bad, but that they are, you know, trying to work systems that may or may not work. That they themselves take hard hits and they end up being mistrustful and, you know, going on the side of protecting the institution. And in doing that, forget about protecting individuals.

MARTIN: So when can we expect to see "The Americans?" How long are you going to tune that?

Ms. SMITH: Boy, I have no idea you know. It's really, I see it as a way of also bringing together many of the projects that I've done since 1979. So, no deadline yet, have to just wait and see what's going to happen and what I gather from this exciting, extraordinary, and challenging time in which we live.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Anna Deveare Smith is an award-winning playwright, professor, and actress. She is artist in residence at the Center for American Progress where she is working on her next play, "The Americans." She was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule to join us from her office at New York University. Professor, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "A Change is Gonna Come")

Mr. SAM COOKE (Singer/songwriter): It's been a long, long, long time coming, but I know, I know a change has gotta come now, ooh yes it is, oh my, oh my...

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