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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 2, 2003

Busy actress, filmmaker lives 'America's story'

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Anna Deavere Smith

Appearance and screening of "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992"

6 p.m. tomorrow, UH-Manoa Campus Center Ballroom. Sponsored by UH and PBS Hawaii.

For her recurring role as the president's national security adviser on the hit TV show "The West Wing," Anna Deavere Smith keeps her bags packed by her New York door and the car waiting downstairs just in case the phone call comes to head for Los Angeles.

"There are times where I'd be told maybe I'd work the next day," says the actress, writer, director and documentary performance artist.

"I'd get the 2 p.m. flight, or sometimes even the 5, and hopefully I would have the script. I'd get to my hotel in California at midnight and hope to God I don't have too much military language, not too many of those 'F-35 Nighthawks' going to countries where I can't pronounce a single word."

But, says Smith, "That's what makes Aaron's (Sorkin) work so relevant" — the spontaneity of the story, which so often tracks current events.

Tomorrow, at the University of Hawai'i, Smith will discuss that role, plus others, including characters from "Twilight: Los Angeles 1992," her re-creation of the Rodney King riots and "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and other Identities," her theatrical documentary of the confrontation that stunned New York after a 7-year-old African American was struck and killed by a Jewish taxi driver (see box, Page E5).

Smith has defined herself by a style that's been called "documentary theater" but which she prefers to describe as "a poem and song about America."

As riots broke out after white police officers were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King, Smith was there, interviewing, taping, soaking up details.

Later, she re-created the scene on stage, building and shaping the story by becoming each of dozens of characters with just a few props and the power of her voice.

"Walt Whitman said he wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him," says Smith, 52. "That's what I've been trying to do for the past 30 years . . . absorb America's story in my lifetime, in my soul and in my psyche."

The themes that lure Smith are the discrepancies of democracy, the unfulfilled promise of the American dream.

She's working on a project for HBO about an African-American family in the late 1940s that moves to Chicago as part of a post-war exodus from the rural South to the big cities of the industrialized North. The family ends up in the Cabrini Green Housing Project, and the story centers on survival.

"We have the expectation (of the American dream)," says Smith, "but inevitably we have to intervene and make the promise come true for ourselves."

A self-described "experimentalist," Smith is probably better known to TV audiences for her recurring roles on "The Practice" and "Presidio Med" as well as appearances in such films as "Dave," "Philadelphia" and "The American President." She recently completed a role in "The Human Stain" with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.

For several reasons, she hasn't yet been able to create a work about Sept. 11.

"I have to give it some time," she muses. "In the case of the (Rodney King) riots, I went right away. But with Sept. 11, I couldn't figure out how to get the real information. The people who did it would be missing. You can't just have victims. You've got to have the perpetrators, or you don't really have a conflict."

Eventually, says Smith, she thinks she will do one piece that brings together the terrorist attacks and the war with Iraq. Which takes her back to her recurring role on "The West Wing" and her ongoing struggle with the military language.

"It doesn't even matter if you know it in your brain," she says, "Your tongue has to learn it too. The language of a cardiologist, for instance, is nothing compared to (that of) a national security adviser, which is mostly weapons, numbers and strange places."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.

Correction: Aaron Sorkin's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.