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Anna Deavere Smith mesmerizes Emerson

Performer Anna Deavere Smith loves words. She has “an excruciating love for what people sound like” and an uncanny ability to channel them and bring them to life on stage or on camera. That is what she did for the enraptured Emerson audience who witnessed her speech and performance at the Paramount Center Mainstage on the evening of September 13. Her appearance took place during festivities that marked the inauguration of President Pelton.

In Smith’s words, “I interview people and I represent them.” And represent she did, from Ruth Katz, the associate dean of Yale Medical School, a tough and gritty woman battling cancer and facing the tough realities of the healthcare system, to Brett Williams, an uneducated, right-wing bull rider from Sun Valley, Idaho.

Smith is an actor, MacArthur Fellow, two-time Tony Award nominee, human rights advocate, and runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize for her play Fires in the Mirror.

Smith’s grandfather told her that “if you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” The words of Williams certainly “became her” as she told his story in a thick Midwestern accent with a beer in hand and a pronounced swagger. She conveyed the truth and dignity in his words, bringing them to us, members of a very different community many miles away. Williams understands bull riding as going against the odds, a “250-pound man against a 2,000-pound bull,” and states baldly, “I’m an optimist,” despite the graphic account of the many injuries he has received in his profession. Smith expressed, and we understood, how that translates to hope.

Smith seeks wisdom in all the unexpected corners of the world “especially in…the broken people…they have extraordinary resources to use language in the most majestic way…to bring dignity to their lives.”

She brought us Trudy Howell, a South African woman who runs an orphanage there for children with AIDS. Smith laid bare the breathtaking strength, courage, and heart of this woman through her tale of a 12-year-old child packed and ready for her deceased mother to come pick her up, essentially waiting patiently for death. Smith/Howell speaks with the children about what is coming, reminds them that she will always hold them in her heart, and ends with a passionate plea to the audience: “Don’t leave [the children] in the dark!”

Smith spoke a great deal about a heroine of hers, Eudora Welty, a writer who penned a dark and powerful monologue by the murderer of a black civil rights activist in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1962. Welty felt that she knew this man, “coming about in this time and place.” Smith performed with a deeply quiet and malignant intensity, reminding us that Welty’s “broad jump to the other,” her willingness to give voice to this man because she understood what had created him, is a critical art form, and that Welty was “a hospitable person…with…room for others’ wounds.” Smith’s message was clear: There need to be more Eudora Weltys in this world, which has become an increasingly intolerant and divided place. 

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