Conversational Placements

Anna Deavere Smith

at the Art Institute of Chicago, Arthur Rubloff Auditorium, May 12

A biology professor describes his theories of genetics and intelligence; a spacy socialite, public-relations maven, plastic-surgery victim, and real estate broker tells us why she holed up in a hotel during the Los Angeles riots; the instigator of the Reginald Denny beating explains that he believes he’s left his mark on society just the way Martin and Malcolm did; a Korean woman describes her sense of bitterness at helplessly watching her business being looted and destroyed during the riots. These are just a handful of the 26 characters Anna Deavere Smith developed out of over 200 interviews she conducted with “average citizens”: lawyers, university professors, convicts, mothers, the elderly, the famous, the notorious.

Conversational Placements–a lucid, articulate one-woman tour de force–represents a breakthrough in the Art Institute’s conservative curatorial policy in its 107-year-old contemporary art series, American Exhibitions: it’s finally included performance art. And Conversational Placements represents a breakthrough in the form: it’s the first one-person show I’ve seen that’s built seamlessly out of characters created from real-life interviews. These characters introduce their stories but in some cases stop midway, their stories intersected and interrupted by those of other characters. Smith adopts the posture, facial expressions, and intonations of the originals, and the result is a conversational weaving together of widely disparate viewpoints.

Smith doesn’t resolve the discord but gives equal time to the fringe perspectives, illuminating our national collective consciousness. Focusing on two incidents–the 1991 Crown Heights riots and the 1992 LA riots–she avoids the predictable liberal viewpoint of most performance art. It was a relief not to feel pressured to root for the underdog, not to be pummeled emotionally, but to consider myriad points of view. Perhaps audiences and artists alike are ready to consider approaches other than political correctness, grandstanding, and postmodern discourse.

The voice of the artist seems secondary to the voices of the characters–Smith allows her own persona to stand behind the almost overwhelming cacophony of competing voices. Though she’s developed and written the performance, she says in a program note that she represents “each person verbatim”: the wording, the style of articulation, the stutters, hesitations, and tonalities, even the speed of each person’s speech. Smith the performer disappears, and these characters become quite real. Surprisingly, Smith’s dialects–notably her Caribbean and Australian accents–are not perfect by any stretch, but it doesn’t matter. Her conviction, presence, and concentration are such that she fairly radiates energy.

The set consists of a chair at a small table at one side of the stage, an ornately carved Victorian-style chair with footstool at center stage, and a farm-style cherry wood table with a chair at the other side. Before each new character emerges there’s a blackout, then the lights come up on the new character, often reinforced by simple adjustments to Smith’s costume.

The performance begins with an elderly woman regally ensconced in the Victorian chair, feet up. She describes a thwarted mugging in which she fought her assailants. But what surprised her more than anything else, she finally says, were her murderous impulses toward her attackers. Then a convict speaks in a halting, hesitant, stuttering voice. His images of prison life are clear, distinct, and direct; his affect is cool and impassive. But when he tries to explain the incident that brought him to death row, he cries. He says he knows he was somehow culpable, but he can’t remember what happened; he also suggests that he somehow indicted himself. It’s thoroughly surprising to hear his admission of responsibility, his admission that he was leading a double life, his disbelief that he actually got involved in a murder over a material thing (the theft of a Cracker Jack ring). Smith’s posture here is ramrod straight, and her demeanor and facial expressions are rigid and impassive, except when her character breaks down. Another character says that his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust and a recent Russian immigrant, threw herself headfirst from her window as a result of the Crown Heights riots. He talks about her growing sense of despair that there was no safe place for a Jewish woman in the contemporary world.

Smith is able to find a chord of sympathy even with the more negative personas. At the same time, the pervasive ambiguity creates a certain coherence and authenticity in this study of the contradictions manifest in our society. Where have we found ourselves? No one should be surprised to see that it’s not a pretty place but a place of great antipathy, ethnic hatred, and despair. And Smith’s is not a pretty picture, but it’s a good map of the territory.