Anna Deavere Smith may be the most empathetic person in America. The renowned playwright and actor is a master at what many of our fellow African-Americans, particularly African-American women, have had to do from an early age: perform empathy, often well beyond the call of duty.
From day one, they operate in a world built to render them and their pain invisible, a world that demands they empathize with the very people who inflict that pain on them. Empathize with the Trump voter, they are told, the voter who elected a leader bent on strengthening institutional bigotries of every stripe. See life through their eyes, the world instructs, as if it were somehow uncommon for us to be forced to see life through the white gaze.
Given this imbalance of perspective, black women who act for a living, like Smith, make an extraordinary sacrifice. They surrender their bodies and voices for an art that articulates the perspectives of others, often in stories told through the lens of white people. Smith goes even further. Her specialty is verbatim theater: a literal impersonation and recounting of the actions, words and movements of people she interviews about a particular subject. Imagine someone not only having to read about that Trump voter, but portray him or her on stage, recounting their exact words.
Her latest project is the brilliant play “Notes From the Field,” now a must-watch HBO film premiering on Saturday, Feb. 24. It spotlights America’s criminal justice system, including the police brutality and school-to-prison pipeline that help tilt that system further against black and brown Americans.
After interviewing 250 people for “Notes,” she has brought 18 stories to life on stage and for the film — including legends like Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and heroes like Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who, after the 2015 massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, took down the Confederate flag flying in front of that state’s capitol. We also meet accidental heroes like Kevin Moore, the Baltimore resident who videotaped police beating Freddie Gray.
What Smith gives us in her plays is different than the average citizen’s brand of empathy. She takes on the personas of folks from every state and tells their stories and truths, empathizing with virtually anyone to ensure that we hear everyone. Beyond the controversial subjects her plays tackle, the uncanny ability to empathize is a lesson that we should take from her art.
My concern is that we are not nearly as good as Anna Deavere Smith is at this.
“[Smith] takes on the personas of folks from every state and tells their stories and truths, empathizing with virtually anyone to ensure that we hear everyone.”
Empathy isn’t mere kindness; it’s the ability to viscerally understand what another person is going through. That has to be communicated. Like any other human ability, it is acted out. Being good at doing so isn’t disingenuous, but you can find it difficult to fake. Or you barely try, and when you’re asked to make an attempt, you need a cheat sheet to remind you how to behave like an actual person.
I’ve watched Smith empathize with hundreds of real people since I was a teenager. I first watched her on PBS interpreting Brooklyn’s early-90s Crown Heights unrest through her miraculous impersonations of its residents in the play “Fires in the Mirror.” She followed that up two years later with “Twilight: Los Angeles,” about the 1992 uprising after the acquittal of Rodney King’s LAPD assailants.
What I hadn’t realized at the time was that her performances were verbatim theater; these weren’t scripts so much as transcripts. While Smith has starred in a number of notable productions with more conventional narrative structures—from “Philadelphia” to “Black-ish” to a new Shonda Rhimes drama premiering later this year — her signature as an actor is her uncanny ability to animate people to tell a story through their eyes.
Smith, with the help of a tall bassist and a crew whose constant work you see onstage, articulates every movement, gesture, accent, and peccadillo of the people whose words she inhabits. The verisimilitude is startling at times.
A week after seeing the film at an early screening in Los Angeles, I met Smith for lunch at a bustling restaurant. Seated out on the patio, we talked about studying the art of language and expression, from songs to Shakespeare to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats and an impassioned Maxine Waters speech. (I know; is there another kind?)
It taught her, she said, “that what language is about is rhythm. And that took me to wanting to study real people — and mostly, study them when they are dealing with catastrophic events in their midst.” When they are in that moment, she said that they get creative with how they express themselves. The result is the uniquely precise, utterly riveting form of empathic storytelling that only Anna Deavere Smith can pull off.
But how does she physically pull it off? Walking in someone else’s shoes is one thing ― how does she prepare herself to speak in someone else’s voice? My voice sometimes gets tired after talking as myself on television or radio; in “Notes,” she becomes 18 different people, at least, nightly. “I’m speaking in all these different voices, and some are hard on my voice,” Smith said, citing as an example the lengthy eulogy for Freddie Gray that she performs in the film as Rev. Jamal Bryant. She added that were she still performing the play currently, we would have to sit inside to avoid her trying to talk over other nearby voices.
Her solution is both practical and accidentally profound: Don’t talk. At least, don’t talk loudly or all that much. When she said that, I immediately thought of cable news. “I’d have to get to the theater around 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon and just be quiet,” Smith said of her pre-performance ritual.
What about the rest of us? Few of us perform for a living, but, as Smith told me, we are all performers. Most of us have the ability to relate to the problems of others with vastly different life experiences. But if someone isn’t very good at portraying empathy, how do they do manage to improve? And how much is too much to ask of the untrained? This is Smith’s life’s work, and if it requires this much discipline ― this much work ― for a professional empathizer to be good at empathy, I worry for the rest of us.
Can you truly feel what someone is going through if you haven’t been in her or his shoes? Can you overlook the fact that those shoes, all too often, are pressed down upon the necks of people who look like you? If you’re like Smith, you quite literally get in those shoes and speak another’s exact words. Few people who have ever walked the earth have her acting skill, but we are all acting. Perhaps we just need to try it once again, with feeling.
Jamil Smith is a journalist and radio host. He covered the 2016 election for MTV News and, in addition to his HuffPost column, is a contributing opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times.