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Turning Stories Into Communities: Interview with Playwright Anna Deavere Smith

The groundbreaking playwright speaks about her latest work.

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Why did you choose to talk to Lance Armstrong?

A lot of people want to know why I have celebrities in the play. Lance and Ann Richardson and Lauren Hutton. In all of my plays, the people are famous in their community. Darell Gates, the police chief of Los Angeles, was famous. The kid who beat up Reginald Denny was famous. Reginald Denny was famous. In Fires in the Mirror, the black activists were famous and the Jewish activists were famous. The difference is this play has a bigger community. This is the community of life and death that we’re all in.

Somebody like Lance represents a person who has an extraordinarily powerful body. He has a body that at one point people thought, ‘Is he even human?

Lauren Hutton was the first supermodel ever. Proportionally, there are no more celebrities in this than in my other plays, it’s just that the so-called community is broader. Lance, who seemed to be absolutely indomitable, was vulnerable – he got cancer. That cancer affected how he did his work when he got well. He would credit in the piece that I do of his would credit the cancer in making him able to organize himself.

What’s it like coming back to Berkley Rep?

I love the Bay Area – it’s so beautiful. Beauty is calming, beauty is inspiring. I love the diversity in the Bay Area. We’ve talked a lot about medicine in this conversation, but what we haven’t talked about is another equally strong element of the play, which is the play shining the light on spirituality. I’m hoping people from all kinds of movements and communities that would be considered spiritual whether it’s a synagogue or a cathedral or a mosque or sand painting ,(laughs) whatever it is. I’m really hoping they will come and see this play. Part of it’s about the body, but if it’s inevitable that the body is not going to remain indomitable, what is the other part of being a human? I’m hoping that my run in Berkeley can attract that community because I know from the different times I’ve lived there in my adult life it’s rich with all of that. Organized religioun, alternatives to organized religion, organized psychiatry. I’m sure there’s some kind of therapy I don’t know about , like softball therapy or something, it’s just full of all that kind of stuff. I’m just hoping what happens at Berkeley is something that hasn’t happened elsewhere in terms of bringing together those communities.


Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.