Anna Deveare Smith: thousands of personalities, one performer

A French Buddhist monk, an injured rodeo rider and a New Orleans doctor become mesmerised by the call to prayer.

MARCH 28, 2010, Abu Dhbai, UAE: US actress Anna Deveare Smith performs at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo by Jodi J. Jack

At around 4:30 on Sunday morning, the American theatre actress Anna Deveare Smith woke up in her hotel room in Abu Dhabi and began preparing for the performance she was scheduled to deliver that evening in the capital. Smith is a pioneer of "documentary theatre", a genre that involves interviewing real people and then meticulously re-enacting their words - down to the stutter, "um" and slight shift in intonation. Over the course of her career, she has interviewed thousands of subjects and then used the resultant tape recordings, transcripts and video clips - almost like sheet music - to embody in herself sets of characters who would, in many cases, never stand to be in the same room together.
Smith's two best-known shows were inspired by conflicts over race in America. When riots erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in 1991 after a seven-year-old black boy was accidentally killed by a Hasidic Jewish driver, Smith interviewed 50 people in the neighbourhood and put together the play Fires in the Mirror, in which she gave voice to 29 characters from all sides of the conflict. The next year, she pursued a similar approach following riots in California to produce Twilight: Los Angeles. Throughout her 30-year career, she has been collecting more general interviews all over America and packaging them into an evolving, expansive, Whitmanesque show called On the Road: a Search for American Character.
In the Sunday morning predawn, before the first call to prayer had sounded, Smith - a light-skinned African-American woman with an unusually long and expressive jaw - opened up her computer and began browsing through her archive of interview transcripts. On an impulse, she decided to deviate from her original plan for the night's performance and selected a handful of interviews from her back catalogue - including one she had never before performed in front of a group - to add to the programme.
That afternoon, just before returning to her hotel room to get into costume for the show, Smith sat down with a reporter on the downtown campus of NYU Abu Dhabi - which had sponsored her visit from New York - and discussed her impressions of the UAE. She did not presume to have gleaned much. "I've only been here for three days, really," she said. "There are all sorts of layers that I can't even begin to comment on."
But as a relative newcomer to the Middle East, Smith did have the benefit of fresh eyes and ears; she had been especially mesmerised by the adhan on a trip to the Sheikh Zayed Mosque the day before. "I'm very interested in the call to prayer," said Smith, "very interested in the call to prayer." "The first time I heard it was on a trip I took to Egypt," she went on. "I went to some beach resort - I don't remember the name of the town now - that was very beautiful. And all of a sudden I heard this sound that just sounded like it was coming from the bowels of the earth. I went running around like a madwoman trying to figure out where it was coming from, and the maid in the hotel, who was an Egyptian man, tried to explain to me what it was: it was the call to prayer."
Smith appeared at the Al Mamoura building for her show that evening dressed in a long-sleeved black silk blouse with red cuffs. The performance was preceded by an onstage conversation between the actress and Rubén Polendo, an associate professor of theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi. She described her approach to interview subjects. "I'm usually picking people who understand something that I don't," she said. "And every time I speak the magical words they have spoken to me," she continued, "I try my best to understand what they're teaching me. I really want to know it. They know it, and I know they know it, and I want to know it. So the only way I know to know it is to put myself in their words - the way you would think of putting yourself in somebody's shoes."
About halfway through her performance - which included uncannily rendered monologues from an injured rodeo rider, a French Buddhist monk and a New Orleans doctor who worked through Hurricane Katrina, among others - Smith began to speak in the voice of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Egyptian spiritual leader raised in Malaysia and now based in New York City. This was the interview she had never performed before, which she had selected that morning specifically for her Abu Dhabi performance.
"The methodology of how to call people to prayer," she said in the Abdul Rauf's stately, lightly-accented English, "that is an act of grace. Isn't the call to prayer magical? You know the story of how it happened? When the Prophet, after 13 years, fled Mecca after an assassination attempt on his life - you know, he was inspired to leave Mecca with all of his followers for Medina. And when they went there, he built the first mosque for prayer, and they said, 'How shall we call the people to prayer? We can't use a horn, because the Jews use a horn' - there were some Jewish tribes there in Medina - 'we can't use a bell, because the Christians use a bell. How do we call the people to prayer?' Some narratives have that the Prophet commissioned a guy to do some kind of a gong with a different sound. A few days later - or while the gong was not completely manufactured - one of the companions came to the Prophet and said, 'I have seen a dream in which this man came and said this is how you call the people to prayer: 'God is most great. I bear witness that there is no god but God' - this is the English translation of the Arabic - 'I bear witness that Mohammed is the messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to success. God is most great. There is no god but God.' And the Prophet said, 'This is an instruction to us'."
Smith drew out the 's' in a long sustain. "So the Prophet said, 'Billal, climb to the roof and call the people to prayer'." She paused. "People heard it for the first time, and they froze! They said, What's that? They freaked out! They froze! Imagine," said Smith, who seemed to have no trouble embodying the words, "what it's like to hear it for the first time!"