In Her Element: Anna D. Smith Serves Up Life's Drama Stage

Article excerpt

For performing artist Anna Deavere Smith, a simple tablecloth can be charged with meaning; in the right circumstances, it even can be a symbol of hope and reconciliation in an age of racial strife.

Some observers might find the image of a group of people from diverse backgrounds sitting down and talking together over a meal a cliche. In the words of Miss Smith - author of and sole actor in a series of theater pieces about the American character - the idea can be a potent one, and any description of her creative method becomes compelling.

She is interpreter as entertainer, teacher (Ann O'Day Maples professor of the arts at Stanford University) as Everyman and Everywoman.

These days, too, she is fame's darling, someone who has managed to escape criticism of her innovative work at every turn. In Washington, where her much-acclaimed show "Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992" opens tonight at Ford's Theatre for a total of 16 performances, she also is something of a media mascot - a notable, too, among those noted at recent inaugural ceremonies and `insider' parties.

Not long ago, she played the role of press secretary in the film "The American President," with Michael Douglas, and she was an ad-hoc Newsweek reporter at last summer's political conventions. Her next theater piece, still in formation, is directed at and is about aspects of Washington, especially its media `culture.'

She was called "the most exciting individual in American theater" in a 1993 Newsweek profile, which labeled the two-hour "Twilight" show - a take on the Los Angeles riots following the 1992 Rodney King trial - "an American masterpiece."

Her performance, the magazine said, "is as close as our culture can come to the impact of Homer, enacting his `Iliad' to a rapt audience in the days when the medium was the person. With her lithe body, lightning-bolt eyes, voice of many colors and some eye-blink costume changes, Miss Smith mutates into a polyglot cross section of social chaos."

" `Acting isn't nice. It's giving, but it's also theft,' " she was quoted as saying in the same article.

She went into greater detail about means and motives in a Smithsonian Associates' appearance in the fall of 1995, enthralling a packed hall with her analysis of rhythms in Shakespeare. He took liberties with language akin to jazz, she noted, saying, "The secret of understanding character in Shakespeare is about the irregularities."

She offered plenty of pithy sound bites as well, such as, "The closer you get to famous people and politicians, the more you get media talk and the less likely you get to character."

The latter line drew big applause. Character as revealed through voice and language is Miss Smith's specialty, and it's generally agreed that she comes close to the mark every time.

She was in her element, quoting black writers she admires and giving back as much as she was taking from the energy in the room. In in a question-and-answer format with writer-director Jennifer Nelson of American University, she alternately explained and entertained, transforming herself on a whim into one or another personage in her mind.

"It's lucky history has found her," says Zelda Fichandler, a founder of Arena Stage and chairman of the graduate acting program at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "She is, of course, amazing. What is her unique strength is the political is always embedded in the human. That's great for contemporary theater."

"She has three gifts that make her unique," affirms Douglas Wager, artistic director of Arena Stage, which is associated with Ford's and Berkeley Repertory theaters in the current production of "Twilight." His conversation with Miss Smith about the character of Washington and its disparities, he says, helped her formulate her next project.

In addition to her training as an actress (a master of fine arts degree and a class at the American Conservatory Theater in New York), she has "a prodigious intellect," he says, and he praises her for the fact that she "is a marvelous listener and observer - not a small talent. …