REVIEW: Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity
February 4, 2021 – Boone, NC:
Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.
On a webcast presented by The Schaefer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, a theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face of earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.
Apparently, a side benefit of all of Smith’s research is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.
Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, he declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time. When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelmingly Black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.
If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4,400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book. The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the Black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.
The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’ slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on White people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery police chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember. What touched Lewis equally was that the police chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy.” The chief insisted, saying, “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’ office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’ count, met 49 times afterwards.
While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’ moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of Black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”
The Schaefer Center Presents Series Announces Programming for the Spring 2021 Virtual Season
An all-free lineup of music, dance, and powerful storytelling theatre goes virtual February 4-March 25
BOONE, NC — The 2021 season of The Schaefer Center Presents performing arts series, presented by Appalachian State University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programs, announces the lineup for its spring virtual series, presented Feb. 4-March 25. All events are free, thanks to a group of generous sponsors. The fall series included a mix of regional and national theatre, Americana and holiday music, and a special engagement with Dr. Jane Goodall, and the spring series offers an equally diverse lineup: award-winning playwright and actor Anna Deavere Smith, the best in contemporary dance by the renowned BalletX, the Steep Canyon Rangers in a live streamed concert from the stage of the Schaefer Center, and a “best of” showcase by the Appalachian Dance Ensemble, featuring works by distinguished faculty choreographers in the Department of Theatre and Dance. A companion series of free virtual events for K-12 schools and families across our region is also being offered throughout the spring by the APPlause! K-12 Performing Arts Series.
The spring series is free of charge, but advance registration is required at theschaefercenter.org. Patrons who wish to make a donation in any amount to support the series and its mission have the option to do so on the website.
The APPlause! K-12 Performing Arts Series — which offers affordable music, dance, film, and theatre events to students and their teachers throughout the schoolyear — will offer free virtual arts programming for K-12 audiences in both school and home classrooms. This educational component features international music and dance, with extended access dates that provide flexibility for students, teachers and families juggling current remote learning schedules.
For more information on the SCP and APPlause! 2021 season, visit http://theschaefercenter.org/ or call 828-262-4046.
The Schaefer Center Presents… SPRING 2021 Virtual Season
Events are FREE; advance registration is required at theschaefercenter.org. All registrants will receive a private link to access the event both the day before and one hour prior to the performance.
Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021
An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity
We live in a winner-take-all society. And yet, part of our potential as humans is our potential for compassion and our resilience in the face of adversity. While doing research for her play Let Me Down Easy, award-winning playwright/actor/educator Anna Deavere Smith interviewed people in the U.S. and abroad who demonstrated grace in the face of dramatic challenges. This storytelling speech celebrates the resilience of the human spirit, the power of empathy, the strength of imagination, and hope.
**The film adaption of Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles is available to view as a complimentary companion piece to Smith’s appearance with the performing arts series. The film can be accessed here.
Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021
8pm; specially pre-recorded program
The special Schaefer Center Presents production will include a recorded introduction by BalletX co-founder Christine Cox, the BalletX 15th Anniversary Season video, and mixed rep selections “Increasing” and “Fancy Me.” In honor of BalletX’s 15th Anniversary Season, the company has commissioned a documentary film by Daniel Madoff that highlights its growth, trajectory, and continued commitment to redefining ballet in the 21st century. Known as Philadelphia’s premier contemporary ballet company, BalletX commissions choreographers from around the world to create new ballets that are “fresh, inclusive, and connect to what people want” (Philadelphia Citizen). Led by Artistic & Executive Director Christine Cox, BalletX has produced nearly 100 world premiere ballets by more than 50 choreographers, and performed for over 100,000 audience members at home and on tour, including appearances at such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center, Vail Dance Festival, Joyce Theater, and Jacob’s Pillow.
Thursday, March 11, 2021
Steep Canyon Rangers
Streamed live from the stage of the Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts!
The Grammy winners from Asheville, NC come to Boone for a live concert streamed from the stage of the Schaefer Center into your homes. Frequent collaborators with banjoist (and comedian) Steve Martin, Steep Canyon Rangers are major players in the bluegrass/country and Americana scene today, with comparisons to The Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Zac Brown Band. SCR released three albums in 2020, including North Carolina Songbook, a recording of their 2019 performance at Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, in which they performed a selection of songs by NC songwriters such as Ola Belle Reed, Doc Watson, James Taylor, and Ben E. King; Be Still Moses, which has the band teaming up with Philly soul legends Boyz II Men and their hometown Asheville Symphony to perform reimagined versions of previously released SCR songs; and their most recent release of all original music, Arm in Arm. “Every song on Arm in Arm captures the North Carolina group’s innovative spirit, weaving in jazz, gospel, folk, and even rock phrases, creating an intimate and intricate sound that challenges, cajoles, and comforts.” (No Depression)
Thursday, March 25
Best of the Appalachian Dance Ensemble
8pm; compilation of past performances
This virtual best-of showcase from Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance features works from at least seven faculty choreographers, including Laurie Atkins, Emily Daughtridge, Regina Gulick, Cara Hagan, Ray Miller, Brad Parquette, and Sherone Price. All curated works were produced between 2006-2019 and highlight genres of modern, ballet, tap and African-themed dance. The selected works feature not only beautiful dancing and well-crafted choreography, but also lighting design by Mike Helms and John Marty, and costume design by Sue Williams.
Virtual APPlause! K-12 Performing Arts Series 2021
Events are FREE; advance registration required at theschaefercenter.org. A private link will be sent to all registrants in order to access the events, all of which are available to view at any time during the scheduled event dates. For questions, contact the Box Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-841-2787 or 828-262-4046. Study guides are available to download for each event.
Jan. 25-May 14
Recommended for Grades 3-12
The name Nobuntu is an African concept that values humbleness, love, purpose, unity, and family from a woman’s perspective. Nobuntu is a “Five Part” a cappella vocal ensemble made up of young women from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The repertoire is a fusion of traditional Zimbabwean-rooted music, Afro Jazz, Gospel, and Crossover in pure voices with minimalistic percussion, traditional instruments such as Mbira, and some dance movements.
Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana — Virtual Lecture Demonstration
Recommended for Grades 3-12
Join Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana for a 40-minute story-based presentation where we follow our main character, Sol, on a journey of discovering Flamenco. The audience will hear the story, see a series of colorful video clips of live flamenco dance and music, and engage in experiential segments for students to try out flamenco techniques from home. Flamenco from Southern Spain is a mixture of many cultures and is an expression of rhythms and feelings. Olé!
Feb. 22-March 5
Donna Washington Storyteller: Fun, Foolery and Folktales!
Recommended for Grades K-2 and Family Audiences
Get ready to laugh out loud, play with language, and enjoy some great stories about foolish choices, bravery, a tiny ghost, and a boy who might not have the sense he was born with! These iconic stories from American folklore will stay with you. Donna Washington is an internationally known, multiple award-winning storyteller, spoken-word recording artist, and author. A highly animated performer, she has been entertaining, educating, and inspiring audiences with her vocal pyrotechnics, elastic face, and deep characterizations that bring folklore, literary tales, and personal narratives to life for over 30 years.
Related Educators Workshop: March 4 at 4pm
March 29-April 9
The Best of Appalachian Dance Ensemble
Recommended for All Grades and Family Audiences
This event is an abridged version of the full-length event that is part of the main Schaefer Center Presents Series on Thursday, March 25 at 8pm.
This virtual best-of showcase from Appalachian State University’s Department of Theatre and Dance features curated works from faculty choreographers that highlight genres of modern, ballet, tap and African-themed dance.
Hobey Ford’s Golden Rod Puppets: The Rainbow Bridge and Other Tales
Recommended for Grades K-6 and Family Audiences
This shadow puppetry production brings to life three folktales through Ford’s unique presentational style combining stunning puppetry, storytelling and topical educational themes. The stories include “The Rainbow Bridge,” “El Coqui,” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” with a finale of his Peepers Puppet, which turns the bare hand into a myriad of creatures. Registration for this event also includes access to a pre-recorded student workshop: Shadow Puppets DIY
Related Educators Workshop: April 22 at 4pm
Schaefer Center Presents… Spring 2021 Registration
Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts Box Office: 800-841-2787 or 828-262-4046, or visit theschaefercenter.org.
Thank you to our SPC sponsors:
The Horton Hotel, Creekside Electronics, Boone Tourism Development Authority, Our State Magazine, Spectrum Reach, High Country Radio, WDAV 89.9 FM, WFDD 88.5FM and WASU 90.5FM.
The 2020-21 Schaefer Center Presents season is funded in part by a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. www.NCArts.org
The BalletX presentation is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Office of Arts and Cultural Programs at Appalachian State University.
Thank you to our APPlause! sponsors:
PEAK Insurance Group, Chuck and Anna Eyler, Sue and Steve Chase
About The Schaefer Center Presents
The Schaefer Center Presents is a series offering campus and community audiences a diverse array of music, dance and theatre programming designed to enrich the cultural landscape of the Appalachian State University campus and surrounding area. By creating memorable performance experiences and related educational and outreach activities, the series promotes the power and excitement of the live performance experience; provides a “window on the world” through the artistry of nationally and internationally renowned artists; and showcases some of the finest artists of our nation and our region. Musical events range from symphony orchestra and chamber music performances to jazz, folk, traditional, international, and popular artists. Theatre productions run the gamut from serious drama to musical comedy. Dance performances offer an equally wide array of styles, from ballet to modern dance to international companies representing cultural traditions from around the world. For more information, visit http://theschaefercenter.org.
Every season, affordable music, dance, film and theatre events are offered to students and their teachers from K-12 classrooms across the region. Students experience everything from high-energy acrobatics and Appalachian music to international dance and literary classics brought to life through theatrical productions. The performances are part of the APPlause! series, presented by Appalachian State University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programs. Featuring local, regional, and world-renowned professional artists, the mission of the program is to share university arts resources with the public, private, and homeschool network across our region. Study guide materials connect every performance to the classroom curriculum.
For more information contact: Allison West, Director of Marketing & Public Relations, 828-262-6084, ext. 107 or email@example.com.
For more information, visit theschaefercenter.org.