Forms of Protest with Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith, a one woman show who comes from Baltimore, Maryland, interviews countless individuals and forms portraits of certain powerful excerpts that can be recreated by her to form strong impressions on controversial topics.

Written by Willa Wu

Anna Deavere Smith performed in the Colwell Playhouse of the Krannert Center for Performing Arts on February 19, 2020.  Out of the performances I have seen thus far this semester, this one was by far the most surprising.

The night’s ticket stub and program, which detailed the actress’s accomplishments.

Coming into this performance, I had honestly no idea what a “play” entailed for one person.  How can one person perform an entire play?  The structure was a mystery to me, but after three excerpts I finally began to understand this new form of performance.  It was incredible to listen through her interview excerpts and explore the point of view of those who were key figures in many controversial topics, such as the police brutality and death of Freddie Gray.

The Unique Style of Performance

I was extremely curious to see the style of Anna’s performance.  Before the show, I noticed that she had one single prop (a cube to hold her water and tissues), and wondered how she could deliver a play with no other props.  I knew from the program that she was an actress on a variety of popular shows and movies, but transforming herself into the voices of others on controversial topics seemed to be the polar opposite.  Anna came onstage in a simple all-black outfit; the theme of her appearance on stage seemed to be maximum simplicity.  

When she transformed into new people, it was clear because of the voice changes, often times paired with a change in accent and hand movements as well.  The way she took note of stutters and pauses in the interview was, in my opinion, the most important and effective aspect of bringing the characters to life.  The pressure of depicting her interviewees laid on Anna, and she did a wonderful job delivering their words via accuracy.

The simplistic set, taken right before the performance started

Representing America

The topics covered throughout her presentation included police brutality, “getting through the day,”  forms of protest, and more. By interviewing individuals such as the very man who filmed Freddie Gray’s police brutality in 2015, Kevin Moore, it creates a sense of power because you know that the words coming out of Anna’s mouth were from a first-hand witness.  The emotion felt by individuals that Anna interviewed were also felt throughout the audience, whether it be humor, grief, or anger. The helplessness felt in Kevin Moore’s voice when he tried to explain his choice of weaponry, a camera, was paired together with his determination to spread awareness of police brutality.  Even if those who hold the power to affect the situation do nothing, Anna gives an opportunity for everyday individuals like him to be heard. By reflecting on the errors of American past, I easily related those events to those of the present, many which are simply continuations of the past. Police brutality is by far still very prevalent, and Anna highlights the racism and discrimination between classes in her powerful performance.

The audience files in, eager for the performance.

Contrasts From News/Documentaries

This performance, although it may seem like it does the very job of what a news story or documentary is supposed to accomplish, conveys much more emotion.  A news story and even a documentary delivers primarily facts, and many times lacks the emotional connection with the audience. By transforming herself into those individuals, however, Anna can connect with her audience by telling the stories from the individuals themselves, verbatim.  News and documentaries are heavily edited, but Anna’s raw interview and deliveries presents her as more credible.

Anna Deavere Smith bows as she thanks the crowd. 

The storytelling that Anna Deavere Smith was able to perform through the voices of others created a powerful performance.  The controversial topics that many avoid were met with the brave voices of those portraits that Anna transformed herself into.

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