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Anna Deavere Smith on storytelling in an era of identity politics and economics

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith discusses telling stories about the big, complicated social issues of our time -- from the L.A. Riots to health care.

Kai Ryssdal: We're not the first to use New York City as a convenient narrative device. Because that's how you tell stories: You find characters and places, you mix them together, you see what happens.

Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith does that, but she does it a little differently. She doesn't so much write her dialogue as she does transcribe it. She talks to real people about real events and acts them out on stage herself about events from the Los Angeles Riots and her play "Twilight: Los Angeles" to the debate over health care and her latest work, "Let Me Down Easy."

Anna Deavere Smith: My life's work has been to see if I could become America by interviewing the people absorbing their words and having decided to do that in an era of what I would call "identity politics," where people would tell most artists write about what you know, write about what you area. I thought that was going to be a spiritual dead end. I decided to do another thing and to make it authentic by going word for word and not even venturing to suppose what, for example, a cowboy might sound like. I thought I might get to know one and one of my dearest friends and person that I perform is a right-wing, Republican, rodeo bull rider.

Ryssdal: I'm actually am so glad you brought up that bull rider. It's from your most recent play, "Let Me Down Easy," which is about health care. I wonder if I could ask you, literally on the spur of the moment, just to give me a little bit of him. And I'll tell you why I want to hear him after you do it.

Smith: I guess something that he would say is, "You know, a lot of people would ride out of confidence. I ride out of determination. Confidence like you been on that bull before. You know you can ride him, but determination is like hangin' on that bull. Even if you're ridin' upside down you're gonna hang onto that bull 'til your head hits the back of the dirt."

Ryssdal: And he rides and he gets a ruptured kidney and he goes to the hospital and he's got to pay a $1,200 bill.

Smith: Well he's pleased about that $1,200 bill because it's a flat rate. And he's actually ends up giving the most progressive message of the play, ironically, because he calls for a flat rate. He doesn't understand why in our current medical system you pay thing by thing.

Ryssdal: "Let Me Down Easy" opened, plus or minus, four years ago -- 2008/2009?

Smith: Something like that. Yeah, that's right.

Ryssdal: Which was the time of the last presidential election. And it's interesting now we've had this debate in this country over health care and it's been divisive and it still is. Are we closer, do you think, to figuring out what we want out of our society?

Smith: Well no because we have a big election in front of us. It's not a full-fledged movement. I think some of the movements that we've had in the past -- Civil Rights movement, women's movement, movements around gender and sexuality -- these are things that happen inside and outside of the realm of politics. So that they happen in schools, they happen in bars, they happen on television, they happen through comedy. That hasn't happened yet in health care. One of my theories is that the best movements are the movements where there's parties -- I don't mean like Republican and Democrats -- but where there's music and dance and booze. Those are the most successful cultural movements. That excites younger people. Younger people are to some extent outside of this because they are the ones who don't get sick as often unless something really unfortunate happens to them and they may not even be thinking about, 'How am I going to take care of myself or even my mother' because they're not old enough to have parents who are sick yet.

Ryssdal: But I wonder if now instead of identity politics, we're thinking more in this country along the lines of identity economics what with the Occupy movement and the 99 percent and income inequality that is big and growing.

Smith: Oh yeah, that's really interesting. I think you're right. I haven't thought about it that way. New idea for me.

Ryssdal: There you go. Is there fodder for you -- just because I would love to see it -- I would pay money to see you do the financial crisis. To interview Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase and Ben Bernanke and put them on stage in some contextual thing.

Smith: Do you think they would let me? Do you think they would talk to me?

Ryssdal: I don't know. Come on! You got to talk to Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton and Daryl Gates, the former police chief of L.A.

Smith: You know, maybe. Let's see how bad it gets. Bill Gates, who people blame the riot on him, he agreed he made a mistake. And so for that...

Ryssdal: Oh yeah. See, you're never going to get bankers to admit they made a mistake. Right?

Smith: I don't know. That, I don't know. I am truly, truly very interested in the other person. It's not a good thing, it's not a bad thing and that why not use this extraordinary, magical skill called acting to embody the people with whom I have differences. And to leave judgment to people who do it better than me -- lawyers, people in courts of law. I am not that great at that.

Ryssdal: Anna Deavere Smith, thanks very much.

Smith: Thank you very much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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