Few people can claim to have invented a new form of theatre, but Anna Deavere Smith is one of them. Since the early 1980s, the American actress and playwright has been a pioneer of verbatim theatre with a series of one-woman shows. On stage, Smith reproduces tape-recorded interviews carried out with members of the public, which often focus on social and racial disharmony in the US. Her most famous plays attempted to shed light on the Crown Heights and Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s, and featured interviews with everyone from black gang members to Jewish housewives. Also known as documentary drama, reality theatre and theatrical journalism, her performances are intended to give audiences a personal perspective on political issues.
The actress, who is also a professor at the Tisch School of Arts at NYU, is coming to Abu Dhabi to perform excerpts from On the Road: A Search for American Character. Beginning in 1983 and still running today, the performance series has included re-enactments of interviews with convicts, shopkeepers, bull riders and even the veteran author Studs Terkel. "My search was specifically to find America in its language. I interview people and communities about the events of our time in the hope that I will be able to absorb America," she wrote in her book Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines.
Her appearance in the capital is part of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute's The Magic of Words lecture. In addition to performing, Smith will also be interviewed as part of a conversation with Rubén Polendo, the associate professor of theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi. The actress was born in a highly segregated area of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1950 and developed an early fascination with language and personal stories. During her performances she appears barefoot, stating that "if I can walk in [my subject's] words, I can absorb America".
Although best known for her stage work, the actress regularly appears in film and television. She currently has a recurring role in the comedy drama Nurse Jackie alongside The Sopranos actress Edie Falco, and is best known for playing the national security adviser Nancy McNally in the long-running White House drama The West Wing. She has also appeared in a string of Hollywood movies: Rachel Getting Married, The American President and Philadelphia.
Almost two decades after her best-known shows Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles won over critics and theatre-goers, Smith continues to tour the US with a tape recorder and says she has interviewed thousands of her countrymen and women for her shows. Although Smith pioneered the verbatim style, documentary theatre is nothing new. The term refers to productions that are either wholly or in part comprised of pre-existing material, such as newspaper articles, legal documents, reports or interviews. Its roots can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when Greek playwrights produced works based on factual accounts from the Persian War. Shakespeare's history plays could also be included in a list of works that draw on factual source material, as could some of his tragedies. Major figures in the 20th-century included Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator, who used the medium to focus on social conflict.
Productions in the verbatim style, often with full casts, have now become commonplace, particularly on the London stage. Many continue to focus their attention on social injustice and inequality. Recent examples include Black Watch, a Scottish play based on interviews with members of that regiment about their experiences serving in Iraq, and My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which is based on letters written by the American peace activist who was killed by a bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza in 2003.
The Magic of Words takes place tonight at the Al Mamoura Auditorium in Abu Dhabi.