What We’re Going Through: Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith: grace notes

Anna Deavere Smith works barefoot on stage — the better to walk in the words of the people she’s impersonating; perhaps also to summon Walt Whitman, who said we’d feel his spirit “under your bootsoles.”

Actress and documentarian, Anna Deavere Smith is all feeling, no bootsoles.

Her new show is “a play in evolution,” and it’s all over the lot, all over the world… She “does” Jesse Norman on “Amazing Grace”; a Hutu prisoner in Rwanda; preacher Peter Gomes at Harvard; the late governor of Texas, Ann Richards, brave and brassy at the approach of death; and, among others, Gabriel Saez, the unlucky jockey on Eight Belles, the filly who succumbed after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. People have found fault with this show, Let Me Down Easy, for its scattered focus, but I liked it better for threading the spooky uncertainty and disbelief of this moment through such an odd lot of anxious minds.

I asked this brilliant sponge what grown-ups are all asking each other: “what are we going through?” What is this work in progress going through? What is Anna Deavere Smith going through?

A theme of this show and our conversation is “grace.” Her subtitle is “Grace in the Dark.” We push and pull some on this subject, this word. Grace to me is divine magic, not a secular virtue; it’s a theological idea, inseparable from the formulations in St. Paul’s Letters. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves,” in Ephesians, for example. “It is the gift of God…” I think of grace as the catalyst of transformed vision. Anna Deavere Smith looks for grace and finds it in the suffering of this world.

I’m looking through the lens of: Is there any grace here? Is there any grace in a tough situation? And trying to define grace at the same time. And finding people who are the exemplars of grace even in places you’d least expect to find it. For example in Rwanda. Who would think that you could go to Rwanda, the site of a genocide, and find grace? And I did in the form of the way people are dealing with the idea of forgiveness. One of the characters talked about giving grace — actually differentiating that from forgiveness, because she said that forgiveness is something you give when someone asked for it; and her awful predicament is that the killers of her family have not come and asked. She says: I’m giving them grace. She’s saying: I’m not holding onto you in my heart anymore…

I think the definition of grace is broader than the religious definition of it. We find it in the world. I visit a garden to find it. We find it in other kindnesses. In a way I’m thinking about it almost like kindness. The other exemplar to me of grace — and I don’t know what her religious background is — is a woman in Johannesburg, South Africa who has an orphanage for children who are dying of AIDS. And she sits with every child who’s dying and talks to them about what’s happening.

Anna Deavere Smith of Let Me Down Easy in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2008

Anna delivers her most powerful points here in three generous performances from the show, in the voices of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans; Trudy Howell, director of the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg; and Ann Richards, in a hospital in Houston. You are invited to listen over and over, and of course to comment on grace, on Anna, on what you and we are going through.

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  • nother

    “A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.”

    -Frederick Douglass

    Anna Deavere Smith is obviously an astute listener, and in my book that automatically makes her worth listening to.

    What a wonderful thing, to contemplate grace. The first thing that pops in my head about grace is a lack of a “woe is me” quotient. It’s about starting from the idea that we all suffer…and moving from there, as opposed to having all roads lead to a rational for lamentation.

    It’s the wide grin and sweet cackle of a Desmond Tutu; it’s the pink blush of my mom’s cheek when complimented on her new hairdo; it’s the do hoohoo woowoowoo wat…of a Lady Ella scat.

    It’s difficult to define the word “grace,” when words have so little to do with it.

    “When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”

    -Chief Aupumut, Mohican. 1725

  • Wow, what a wonderful way of speaking about our times! Hearing Anna Deavere Smith analyse the market meltdown and the state of American society on a more spiritual level really made me reflect on how superficial these crisis moments are as we experience on the net or live TV. Although, this may be the end of a particular banking structure, we should also be asking how do the market crashes really affect us, our families, and our relationships in the world.

    After a heavy fix of cable news last night and hearing this program the next morning, I’d rather keep my eyes what is happening to the world around me. After all, despite hearing about how the market crash is going to “hit main street”, what is “main street” really like, does it exist? Don’t we live in a time in which globalized financial networks and de-industrialization are moving us past the “main street”…hasn’t “main street”, in some sense, already crashed? Who and what are we really saving with a the new financial legislation? What do we mean when we say we’re scared that the market is going to hit “main street” when it is already known that inner city and rural communities in the U.S. have already been marginalized in the networked global economy for quite some time now?

  • shaman

    Listening to this conversation was like getting back on an old, but comfortable bicycle in the back of the garage. A solemn reminder of how narrow the path has been in this material age.

    Grace and Wisdom are intertwined.

    The abject poverty of the Bush years is the utter absence of either.

  • Listening to this conversation was a very strange experience. I had almost given up on the notion of “grace” having impact in a materialistic, hypermodern, injustice-laden universe. But Anna is embodied wisdom that demonstrates that grace remains not only amazing but also abundant in the deep, dark corners of human experiences of suffering.

    Which brings me to my central point that grace is “help of the helpless” and the suffering, the marginalised, the abandoned and the voiceless, the “poor in spirit”.

    The Wall Street meltdown scares the shit out of everyone but it is concerned with the workings of Mammon, the anti-thesis of Grace. Perhaps one hopes that “grace” will deliver America and the world from the mess brought about by the naked pursuit of power and materialism through cut-throat competition and hegemonistic practices.

    But grace more often than not appears to the victims of injustice (the weary and heavy laden) than its perpetrators. If grace does appear to the perpetrator, it would lead to metanoia (repentance). I personally believe that grace is that which reveals the goodness of God to a needy person and it leads to repentance and deep into a process of personal transformation into the likeness of the supreme embodiment of the author and end-result of grace, Jesus Christ.

    We know of Rwanda. But the present is often the continuum of the evil holocausts of the past. In this context, I would present the introductory paragraphs of the Tehelka news story on the on-going campaign of murder, intimidation and persecution by Hindu fascists belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishat and the Bajrang Dal of the marginalised Dalit (untouchable) Christians in the Indian state of Orissa as an example of grace working powerfully in the face of tribulations.

    “”WHEN THEY came for Narmada Digal, she wasn’t there. She had fled, five children and mother-inlaw in tow, to the safety of the jungles a kilometre away. So, they set about what she left behind. A framed picture of Jesus, a Bible in Oriya, utensils in the kitchen, some clothes, and linen. By the time Narmada tiptoed back, her home was gone. What was left was still hot from the ashes, and smoking. The neighbours came to commiserate. Narmada took a good look, stood erect, and pulled her sari over her head. She began to pray.

    “Lord, forgive us our sins. Jesus, you are the only one. Save us from our misfortune. Free us, Lord.” The words are tumbling out. Narmada’s children have joined her. She is weeping as she pleads for deliverance. So is everybody else. It’s a simple bond that no human wrath can sever, a woman and her God. “I will die. But I won’t stop being a Christian,” Narmada says.”


    Situations may be complex and problems almost insurmountable. But grace is another word for simplicity of faith in the man Christ Jesus and what he represents for all time.

  • Nice job of pointing out the cultural specificity of the way “grace” is conceived. What’s especially nice about the way this concept was handled is that it wasn’t about putting Christian ideals on top of other values. Neither was it, obviously, about denigrating the importance of those ideals for a number of people about whom we care deeply.


  • Enkerli:

    What I am really interested in is the question:

    What might the consequences be in cultures that do not have any inkling of the concept of “grace”? In other words, what happens in cultures in which “forgiveness” is an alien or even despised concept? How far and in what direction can such culture move since it is inevitable that ALL cultures/individuals will come face to face at some time sooner or later with experiences/circumstances that demand having access to “grace” and being enabled to extend “grace”. In this sense, is not “grace” a universal concept applicable across all cultures and worthy of being accessed by and extended to ALL cultures/individuals?

  • bft

    In the conversation presented, it didn’t sound to me like Ann Richards found her chi, it sounded like she took someone’s word for it.

  • potter

    Anna Deveare Smith is a genius, the way she climbs into another skin and sees out. What a perfect moment to focus on “grace”! This is not a term I use, not coming from a Christian background, but I recognized it in the stories she told ( her exquisite “taste”) about kindness and caring, not allowing another to be in darkness, calming the fear the moments before death arrives. This gave me the chills b/c I know it is really what life is about. Maybe we know and see life best at those moments.

    So since a lot everyone here has related it to the “crisis” we are in let’s welcome it as an opportunity to ride the wave with grace and get out of ourselves to worry a bit more about the whole world we live in and how it works and might work a little better. Thanks for the reset.

  • I would have to say that this episode had its ups and downs. It had its complex thoughts and its emotional moments. Her dropping into one personality to another did cause issues for me. I would be listening, tune out for 30 seconds to take care of something else and had trouble finding out what was going on because the guest that had been on wasn’t there anymore. I guess that makes her very talented but didn’t make for easy listening in an hour long format when life’s distractions are bound to creep in.

  • potter

    The New York Times had a good article/review on her show, also with a short mp3 interview:

    What Does Grace Mean to You?