Why Anna Deavere Smith Plays Both Devils and Saints

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If there’s one thing we can all do to make life better, it’s to empathize. 

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“Write” is an OZY series that features conversations with artists, hosted by author Sarah Ladipo Manyika.

As a writer, I’d frequently heard that in order to make characters come alive, one should put them onstage. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to take an acting workshop with the award-winning actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith that I began to understand what this meant. At the start of the workshop, when everyone was assigned an individual exercise, I was asked by Smith to play one of my characters (an elderly immigrant airport worker) without words. I immediately panicked, for words are my tools as a writer, so how could I possibly “act” my character without them?

As I wordlessly bumbled along, my character suddenly burst out of me in an unexpected and irate monologue. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that she was tired of being invisible, tired of not being listened to properly. It was then, for the first time, that I really understood my character. I’d been holding her in my head, and at a distance, without seriously walking in her shoes. I had sympathy for her, but not empathy. Acting, as Smith says, “is the furthest thing from lying that I have encountered. It is the furthest thing from make-believe. It is the most unfake thing there is.” She goes on to describe it as “a search for the authentic by using the fictional as a frame.” This, I realized, is also applicable to writing. By searching for that which is authentic in our fictional frames, we writers reach a deeper understanding of the other.

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