Anna Deavere Smith: Stories of Crisis


Dramatist and NYU professor Anna Deavere Smith talks to Rob Johnson about the power of storytelling in times of crisis.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Anna Deavere Smith, actress, playwright, professor of performance at New York University. And I must add a lovely friend of my family. My wife and I, my two daughters have enjoyed knowing you and learning from you for a very long time. Thanks for joining me today Anna.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Great to be here.

Rob Johnson:

So here and now on this 12th of May, we are in the middle of a horrendous experience with the pandemic associated with COVID-19. We’re seeing the ramifications of a failing health system. We’re seeing ramifications of inequality. We’re seeing all kinds of political machinations that do not fortify our faith in our country. And yet we’ve got to build a new, and I guess the reason I was inspired to reach out to you in this dreadful context is because you have been an artist and you have illuminated the challenges we face in many contexts. And I’m curious how you’re seeing the challenge, how I say, we’re all sailing in the fog, but how are you addressing the challenge today?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah. Well, I think sometimes I try to remind myself of the lessons that I’ve given my students in the past. And I’ve taught for a very long time now ever since 1973 and the problem for the last 10 years, I would start the class semester by saying, confidence is overrated. Give doubt a try. Confidence is overrated, give doubt a try.

Rob Johnson:

I like that.

Anna Deavere Smith:

And I always felt like I needed to prepare my students for the unknown and the kind of kids that come to NYU, or when I taught at Stanford before that are people who get where they are because they’ve been working on confidence or they’ve been raised to have lots and lots of confidence. And so they show up and they have that sometimes, or they’re masking their doubt and their uncertainty and their insecurity, and trying to present as though they are confident.

And so, I’ve always said that to them in large part, in order to have the class become a community, to take them off of their sense of self, their need to win their need to individualize. And I think some of them were confused and some of them are relieved when say confidence is overrated, give down a try. And as I sit in my own library, in these days, and I look up at the playwright, Samuel Beckett, there’s artists who have been able to live in and be productive in a sense of uncertainty. So, I mean, I guess one thing to do is to try to adjust one’s mind to quote unquote for lack of a better word, embrace uncertainty.

Rob Johnson:

Well, how would I say that resonates with those of us in the economics community. Because we’ve had a lot of problem with the stability of financial markets in recent years. And one of the real, what I’ll call false consciousness of economists is pretending they can see the future or pretending that the world is in a stable place. So the past is inadequate prologue and with a few statistical models, everything’s under control.

Well, we found out in 2008, the financial markets, it was not. And what’s interesting to me is probably the two greatest economists in my mind of the 20th century were John Maynard Keynes and Frank Knight. And they both espoused what they called radical uncertainty or ontological, uncertainty, meaning you can’t know. And it’s kind of when you use the word confidence, it’s a confidence game. It’s demagoguery to pretend you can see what you can’t see. And that could do a lot of damage as they say, people are anxious. And when you come on as the demagogue, you make them feel good until they realized you were full of baloney. And then they really don’t like you.

Well, your students got a very good lesson from you in that context. And I guess, in the process of not knowing, we can know something’s better than we did before, like that our health system is very unequal like that people of color are suffering disproportionately, like that global supply chains created a lack of resilience, a vulnerability to the propagation of this infection, and we weren’t prepared to stop it. So there are some things we’re learning, even though they make us less secure and knowing the way out is, is very difficult to envision, I would say.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah. I mean, whoever, obviously, the person who they say the way out a vaccine and those scientists will get the Nobel prize. I mean, we’ll be very, they will be welcomed what they have to offer us, will be welcomed.

Rob Johnson:

Anne, I guess another thought I had, in preparing for this conversation. We’ve had a lot of discussions through my friend Ed Pavlic and talked about the importance and power of James Baldwin. And there was a passage in his book, Another Country, which made me think of you. I discussed it with Cornel West the other day, and then I thought it just brought you to mind and it goes like this, “Perhaps such secrets, the secrets of everyone were only expressed when the person laboriously dragged them into the light of the world, impose them on the world and made them a part of the world’s experience without this effort. The secret place was merely a dungeon in which the person perished, without this effort, indeed the entire world would be an uninhabitable darkness.” What I see in that and why it relates to you is that you shed light through your work onto these places. And that is an act of will. There’s a famous writer about education named Sir, Kenneth Robinson. What he said in one of his books called, Out of Control, is everyone has an imagination, but creativity is an act of will. Where within you comes to the inspiration to shed light on those places, not just to perceive them, but to take action. To illuminate?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, first of all, I’m a dramatist. And so, when you think about it, drama is always about being unprepared, whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, something happens for which the characters or the humans surrounding this phenomenon are unprepared. I tend to be interested in catastrophes. I tend to be interested in events where people have to come out of what I call their sort of safe houses of identity, and they have no choice. And when they do that, they automatically are opening themselves up for disorder and then reordering. So for me to go to dark places is really an opportunity to practice my craft. And that’s the other thing, there’s the act of will, but there’s also that, there are disciplines. So, there’s a desire, but that doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have certain skill sets.

So, the other thing about me going to places to look, for example, and let me down easy at sickness and dying, or even to go to a catastrophic place like, New Orleans after Katrina, or as I did to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide or, South Africa in the midst of the AIDS crisis, I have a chance to ask people to reorder things because they’re not so sure to get back to this idea of give doubt a try, they’re not so sure, and they’re more willing to be creative and to rethink and redo.

Rob Johnson:

Well, there was some woman years ago wrote a wonderful book called the Life of Poetry and her name is Muriel Rukeyser. And I always was very moved by the way she thought about arts. You call yourself a dramatist, but there’s a kind of poetic sense in the way you proceed, whether at the school of prison pipeline or let me down easy, performances I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. And Rukeyser once said, the relations of poetry are for our period, very close to the relations of science. It’s not a matter of using the results of science, but to seeing that there is a meeting place between all kinds of imagination and poetry can provide that meeting place.

And I sense that there’s a big difference between science and scientism. Scientism is part of that con game that you talked about a pretending to know, embracing the uncertainty as daunting or as frightening as can be, is much closer to a poetic state of mind. But I think it helps us both to feel ourselves and to deepen our sense of feeling towards other people. You’ve just mentioned to me in the past couple of minutes, how you’ve studied catastrophe, you’ve studied these dreadful experiences, but I got the sense that you were kind of saying that because of the silver lining or because the byproduct that’s forced through the suffering and the pain and the disorientation, it’s a kind of illumination or a new way of seeing?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Rob Johnson:

What have you found like, let’s talk about when you went to New Orleans, how did Katrina change the way people perceived what mattered in their lives?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Wow! Well, first of all, it’s in New Orleans. So, one of the stunning things was, and I don’t know how soon I got there after the flood, but one of the stunning things was how soon the people in New Orleans were able to party. One time when I was in New Orleans, a guy said to me, he said, in New Orleans we love the party, and we love the party so much that if you tell me when your birthday is after you go home, we’re going to have a birthday party for you anyway. And so just this ability to party in the face of disaster is something that I think is very unique to New Orleans. The other thing that I remember and you’re from Detroit is a very long article in the New York times, right after Katrina sort of saying, well, maybe New Orleans should be left for dead like Detroit.

And that’s not what happened, it recovered. It did come back. I’m sure if you talk to Andrew he’d have an awful lot to say about that. Or even just when you think about New Orleans and the idea of the second line in a funeral that they start with very somber music, but on the way back from the cemetery, they go into this party that the whole, anybody look to me, whenever I go, I went online recently. I’ve never seen a second line, but I went online to look at some and it’s like, it’s almost like everybody is welcome. Yeah. Right. Everybody’s walking to come out of their house with an instrument and to be a part of the party. So, that’s something that’s very specific to new Orleans.

Rob Johnson:

I got a little New Orleans experience in the years I worked in the music business, because my friends, Peter and Ed Gerard, and I were partners in a management firm. And they, I mean, we, but they primarily managed Dr. John the male stripper. I got to do a whole lot of what I’ll call jet blue to New Orleans and some I learned about that crazy, beautiful culture. And even after Katrina, we did a lot of things together. And what was his favorite song? I was in the right place, but most have been the wrong time. And I guess that one probably was some of the parties right after Katrina, but so, you’re down in New Orleans and they know how to party, they know how to, what you might call, defy despair.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, listen, here’s the thing, one of my memories about it, in a way going to Katrina, number one, I’m looking for stories, right? I’m looking for stories. And in this case, I sent the very smart young man out in front of me. And he called me up. He’d been there for about three days and he said, Anna, you got stories hanging off at trees down here. So, that’s number one. Is that a place like that is number one, going to have a million stories and equally as important, everybody wants to talk. And speaking of poetry, what I have found is that when people are talking about a disaster or when they’re talking about loss, or when they’re talking about a close call.

The language that they speak becomes incredibly vivid, incredibly, I won’t use the word poetic because I do have so much respect for the very disciplined poets, who look at it, but a blank sheet of paper and come up with a poem, but people do communicate in a very special way. And that’s the only reason why I’m able to take sort of real life talking onto the stage, because by the time it gets to the stage, I have curated this experience, looking for the people who express themselves in unique ways and who say things in very unique ways and give you very beautiful and clear images. So, that’s like New Orleans offered me.

Rob Johnson:

I watched you in a video with a number of others just this past week on, I think it was something like American poets, American poetry.org. And you were talking about the Gwendolyn Brooks, you and others were talking about the Gwendolyn books, a poem to prisoners and the vividness of that language and the testimony of some of the people in your video, about having been prisoners in what kind of place the mind went to that Gwendolyn Brooks was able to aluminate. I thought that was just fabulous. I thought that was really beautiful. In your sense right now, you’re based in New York as am I. How is New York surprising you right now?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Wow! Well, I mean, I’ve been pretty obedient and I’m not going out a lot. I think, what is surprising to me is the fact that it is so empty. I live right near the hall and tunnel, an area of New York that’s got, always got congested traffic. And I literally look out on seventh Avenue and it’s empty. And yet it’s springtime. And so there’s beauty that everywhere, but I’d say the thing that is surprising me the most is the emptiness of the city. I was driving up Madison Avenue yesterday, and it’s just stunning that all those stores are empty. A friend of mine knows some people who live in the Carlyle. He said there are four people in the Carlyle hotel right now. So I would say the emptiness is what is most surprising to me.

Rob Johnson:

And is that because, people are afraid because, I’ll give you an example. I have a home in Bolinas California. I know, you know the number of people per square mile is 390, in Manhattan the number of people per square miles is 28,500.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Wow!

Rob Johnson:

So, I guess I’m asking, are people gone because the threat of contagion is great in New York city? Are they gone because they’re affluent so they could afford to go to another place? What do you think is driving that evacuate?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, I haven’t done a study of it, but I’m assuming it’s because if 40% of New York is empty, it’s because it’s a lot of people here who have means, they’re affluent. They have an option. They can go somewhere else and they want to take their family away from danger. So, or people thought, well, wow, why don’t I go towards beauty? Let me get out of New York. I don’t have opportunities like this to be indulging in beauty because, I can work wherever I am. now I do think that right now, the notion of it being a vacation, if that wasn’t over a long time ago is getting clearer and clearer. The darkness is getting clearer and clearer. You know what, I want to just quickly give a shout out to Elisa New, who is a professor at Harvard. And she is the one who did that beautiful poetry in prisons project that you alluded to a few minutes ago.

Rob Johnson:

Oh yeah. Well, the end of that poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that she, I guess you worked with her to highlight, goes over. What wants to crumble you down to sicken you, I call for your cultivation of strength to heal and enhance in the non cheering dark in the many, many mornings after in the chalk and the choke. That choked me up when I read that this morning. And so I think you, I say you, once again, you worked with a very powerful partner. And though that’s a short video, I’ll put that on the website associated with this podcast. So, if you can access it and it will turn them on to, I believe there are two seasons of her poetry program that you participated in available online for free right now.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Cool.

Rob Johnson:

And so, you’re looking at a New York that’s kind of evacuated. There are the people that my friend and your friend Ed Pavlic called, the labor in the shadows. How do all these people in the food business and the nursing home business and the hospitals continue, where do they find the bravery to continue to work like they do?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, I went yesterday to my doctor to get tested actually. And his staff was there and it was hard to get there. One of them talked about how she got on the bus and the bus was so crowded because you can’t sit towards the front. She had to get on the back of the bus that has resonance, doesn’t it. And she was really scared. So then to wait for another bus would be 48 minutes. She knew it down to the eight. So she had to take a Lyft to get to work. And then, obviously they’re the people who are really on the front lines of this thing, and we know they are our new heroes. I hope that there will be a ceremony when and if we come out of this, where those people are lined up in a stadium and given awards for how much they’ve been doing for us.

Rob Johnson:

One economist who I know who has one said, they’re going to have to change the Nobel prize into the noble prize and give it to people like that.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah. Why not? Well, you should start the Nobel prize.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah.

Anna Deavere Smith:

You’ve started things before. Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

I think, I find the courageousness and which… I have a friend who is just around the corner from where I live. And his father was a 69 year old physician who would not stop working despite his age and some health difficulties. And he passed away from the COVID virus about 10 days ago. But his son, who’s mourning obviously shared with me that it would have been impossible for his father to have felt he had a meaningful life If he didn’t practice his calling as a physician in these difficult times, that’s what he felt he was meant to do.

And he wasn’t going to, what you might call hide from the challenge that had defined his own sense of purpose. And I think according to my friend, though it was painful, his father was peaceful about the choice that he made. And we’re going to learn an awful lot in these coming months about where that soulfulness comes from. Because there are awful lot of people who’ve, I mean, some people I hate to say are, through their despair for survival, forced into these circumstances, but others are choosing to be of service. And I think, my heart goes out to both of them, both types.

Anna Deavere Smith:

And problem solving, when I get on the Zoom to hear my Dean at NYU talk through how we’re going to proceed and the fall, or I’m on the advisory board of the Yale school of drama, same thing. As I hear leaders trying to solve problems that they’ve never had to solve before. Logistical problems that have to do with how we can proceed. I think that, even if this problem solving doesn’t solve the problem we’re setting out to do, people in leadership positions are really getting a chance to hone skills about problem solving and about coalescing groups of people.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. That’s interesting. The play, Let Me Down Easy. I thought that was so marvelous. Matter of fact, it’s kind of fun. I’ve never seen anyone do a better impersonation of Lance Armstrong than you. Lance Armstrong was very friendly through a man named Bob Rowley with my deceased friend who had the bakery in Durango, Colorado. And so, I did see him vividly alive once in Austin, Texas with my friend and a number of times, and my friend whose name was Rob K Barry had provided granola all over the world via FedEx or whatever international service for Lance’s breakfast when he was competing as a bike racer. But I watched you in that play, do many things. And I always remember with a smile, the Lance Armstrong impersonation, and he had had some real difficulties with his health, as we know.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah. The…

Rob Johnson:

The most powerful… Oh, go ahead please.

Anna Deavere Smith:

No. Well, one of the things that Lance said in that interview, which is probably one of the… when we think about there are different ways you could go in terms of your, the way we address the vulnerable, people like Lance Armstrong, the champions, it can’t be about vulnerability. It has to be about winning. And one of the lines that he said was, he’s talking about a guy who was, he says, five times second in the tour de France, sucks to be him. And a friend of mine’s daughter is like, in the finance business. And she just loved that line, five times second in the tour de France, sucks to be him. It’s like the Lance Armstrong’s of the world when he was at his peak, of course, you have to win. And I think a very important spiritual question for us now, will be what’s going to be other options than winning.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, or even in another way of seeing it, what does it mean to win?

Anna Deavere Smith:

Sure. Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

You can win at some really lousy games and you should hang your head. And if you get my Nobel prize that we’ve talked about in just a few minutes ago, then you may not win in some material respect, but you are a winner. I think redefining what winning means might be part of this exercise.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Right. Exactly.

Rob Johnson:

But coming back to your play that, fabulous scene about the young white doctor who went to Katrina, went to New Orleans, excuse me. Went to through Katrina, working in a hospital and then saw, With her own experience in her own eyes, what it felt like to be vulnerable when, I believe it was the area she worked in was a place that might not be rescued. And just tell us a little bit about that story and how that became part of your work.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah. This is a, first of all, I should say that whenever I write a play, I talked to a lot of people and in the case of, Let Me Down Easy, I talked to over 320 people. And so, one of the people out of all of that, that I decided to portray as a young white doctor named Keister Kurtzberg. And she worked at Charity hospital, which was a, I guess it’s always been a debate whether Bellevue or Charity was the first hospital for poor people in America. And so you’re already a kind of a person, if you choose to do your residency and also practice as a physician at a place like Charity hospital. You’re already a certain kind of person who has a certain set of values and who sees the value in all human beings.

And for her, so she’s already somebody who is with the vulnerable, has been around the vulnerable for her career. But what was a turning point for her, was to realize that her patients and the nurses and the other people who work at Charity hospital really believed that they were never going to be evacuated. They expected that they would be abandoned. And this was stunning to her, because she realized that she had just never been abandoned, but these were people who were used to that as a kind of a norm. And in fact, they thought that the Levees that they allowed the water to come into the poor parts of New Orleans in order to save the people in richer part. So for her, that norm as a kind of a worldview of a point of view, or a point of view was heartbreaking and stunning. And she was shocked that in fact, the rich people got out in helicopters and everything else, and the patients at Charity hospital were the last to get out.

Rob Johnson:

Wow. So, she had a, I’ll call, a powerful awakening to what this

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, she was close enough. I think this is important is that I don’t know, Brian Stevenson and others talk about the idea of proximity, right. And when I was writing my play about kids who can’t get through school and become incarcerated, Notes From The Field, and I stopped the play in the middle and asked audiences to divide up into groups of 20 and talk about it. I realized that the question of proximity is very important. Like how proximate do you feel to the problem? So even if somebody wanted to be like a Keister Kurtzberg, and she’s a hero of mine, if you’re not in proximity, you can’t possibly really be there. You can’t do it. So the first step she had an awakening, but you can’t even have an awakening like that if you’re not willing to be proximate to the problem. And in this case, the problem of poor people in a very desperate situation.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit, I’m kind of like taking the helicopter up high now and looking down on this situation, we have this society that has all of these fault lines and all of these problems. And we have the question of governance. I know, Naomi Klein and I spoke last week and she called what she feared to be, the next shock doctrine episode would be called not green new deal, but screen new deal, that the powerful, very wealthy tech entrepreneurs, technology monopolous, we’re going to act as though creating a massive surveillance system was somehow going to protect us from disease. All they made additional billions of dollars and installed a very harsh surveillance state.

We see many people in the financial industry who have kind of which Martin called, garnered a reputation of being predators, not facilitators of growth and development as was often advertised. We see the role of money in politics. We see despondency as a hang over from the bailouts of 2008. When Joseph Stiglitz said the polluters got paid and everybody else fended for themselves. And now we see a very kind of mysterious set of bailouts where the stock market’s doing well with 14% an employment and all kinds of small businesses are shutting, and a phrase I know you’ve used, the Wolf’s have come out. And how do we address that heartless predatory Wolf like behavior, where people are preying upon the disaster and the suffering at a time when we need governments to bring us all together?

Well, if it sounded like a completely a Pollyanna, this is a role that the arts could play, and this is a role that our spiritual leaders can play. And our teachers can play, which is to invest in the health of the moral imagination of our country. And there are a lot of, this is a minority. These wolves are in the minority. They live somewhere in the 1%. And that whole display in the democratic debates showed us a very diverse wide group of people who were concerned about the 99%. Almost everybody up there was concerned about the 99%. And so I think that this is a time when we can have a movement that will come through some popular arts. It will come through smaller cracks of art that’s not popular and writing. And so, I’ve seen that happen before, the 1960s was a time when popular music and fashion, everything sort of questioned the status quo, questioned the official language, questioned values.

And so it’s gotta be something, at least that we can’t… we were looking, at this point, it’s sort of like, enough of Donald Trump. Do you know? I mean, I want to find the people who are doing something now, and you do see people out there who are doing stuff as we’ve said earlier. So I do think that it’s a tough… look, arts institutions are going to have to completely reorganize themselves just how they are, how they do business. And that’s not the only area in which that will happen. School, maybe this’ll be, do something about the outrageous amount of money that it costs to go to university, maybe this will stop the division of private schools versus public schools. Maybe folks who previously would have worked day and night to get their kids in private school, just won’t be able to do that.

And so then they will invest in making the public schools better. So, I think in this reorganization that’s inevitable to happen, we will also find artistic products and spiritual leaders who will give encouragement to people and will coalesce people around a different set of values. My assistant Stephanie, turned me on to something called spontaneous worship. I never heard of that. And it’s just this incredible music of people sinking, really religious songs, but they’re young and it’s spontaneous and it’s beautiful.

So, I think in the same ways that we’re very much unprepared for COVID, but in other ways, if this had happened in 1989, we wouldn’t have had the technology that we have that would allow us to have class on the internet or anything like that. So along with this technological life raft, I think we also have lots of artists out there, particularly younger ones working in alternative forms and alternative ways who have a great opportunity in a sort of relative quiet, where it’s not only the biggest flashiest thing to take a seed and make something very beautiful.

Rob Johnson:

I think that how would I say, that illumination of possibility is very important now, because indeed without all deepening of despondency and despair, we’ve read a lot in recent years about the diseases of despair, the opioid addiction and suicide alcoholism in the light. But I think right now, I use my name, Robert Johnson. So I can talk about the crossroads, but I think we’re at a crossroads between a reinvigoration of a broadly representative democratic system built on the principles of which our country was founded in a cynical despondency that submits to an authoritarian structure out of fear, and makes those who espouse those principles, appear to be romantic fools. And without what I will call the corrective energy of a sense of values in the sense of what is goodness, that despondency can run wild and the authoritarian reaction to it can, as they always say, it’s darkest before dawn, it can get a lot darker before we reached that point where the sun rises again.

And I think the work that you talk about in the arts, in the spiritual disciplines, is in many ways, breathing moral and ethical discourse back into our society, which has had a technocratic and quite pretentious illusion, a confidence game of sorts. And I think that the tension of knowing that there are moral and ethical outcomes, but the process is not what you might call using systems and markets and other tools in service of those moral and ethical goals, but it’s almost using, deifying themselves, deifying moneymaking, deifying, people always say money is not the root of all evil, money is an instrument, but love of money might well be.

And how we break this spell, I think really depends on art. James Baldwin, Again, your and my friend Ed Pavlic, he wrote a book called, Who Can Afford to Improvise? And in it, he described an experience where James Baldwin was listening to Aretha Franklin sing, I wonder. And he had an epiphany. He said, Aretha sings to the person, meaning the heart and the people, meaning the issues at the same time. And he went to Ray Charles, and they created something together called, the hallelujah chorus.

And Baldwin said, in essence, I am a brilliant essayist, debater, speaker. And every time I win with my skills in an intellectual debate, I inspire animosity and I set back progress toward my deeper goals. Whereas someone like Ray Charles using blues metaphor and poetics and sound inspires people, and they went together in the hallelujah chorus. This is all in Ed’s book, where Ray Charles did a musical rendition of the same vision that James Baldwin did in spoken word at the opening night of the Newport jazz festival, which used to be held at Carnegie hall.

In the aftermath, the reviews came out and the reviewers loved Ray Charles and despise James Baldwin. And Baldwin then pledged to choose a path of poetic expression rather than literal logical jousting. Despite his skills, he saw that the pathway through the arts, is the way of healing and transformation. And I think that, how would I say, I think you exhibit that gift and that power of persuasion through your arts and through how you describe how arts have to rise to the occasion. Now, I made a podcast the other day with Ashley Monet and Brandon Dixon. He was the gentleman in Hamilton who confronted the vice president of the United States. And they’ve got a new foundation that I just joined the board of called, We Are. And there are focusing on Detroit, where I’m from, as you mentioned.

And they talked about that the arts were the way in which they would create community. They would create, what we might call, a stronger spine and a vitality that’s much needed. And I think Anna, you’re one of the most gifted people that I’ve ever met. And I think about Muriel Rukeyser when she was talking about troubled times and how even at times people will become afraid of poetry, but she said, if we are free, we are free to choose the tradition. And we find in the past, as well as the present, our poets of outrage, like Melville, and our poets of possibility, like Whitman. When I read that, I was thinking you were both. And a-

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, that’s very nice. That’s very encouraging. Well, I appreciate that. I mean, I would like to just leave us with two thoughts that I find very uplifting. And one of them, doesn’t sound good when you first listened to it, but when you hear it, the kind of a twist that it causes in your mind leads with a important question. It comes from a rabbi David Wolpe, who I talked to in Los Angeles. And he says, you know the story of the person who said, I’m only making a hole in my side of the boat.

And I love that, because exactly when you think about it, you realize the absurdity of it. And it’s such a great way of thinking about how we’ve been living with these people, with these great big boats. And they think they can just make a hole in their side of the boat. And then, the other is, every once in a while, I hear that song called the international, which I think was written in the Spanish civil war. It is so up lifting. When you hear almost like talking about, the second line in Los Angeles, where everybody can play. Everybody can play, everybody can sing. And it’s that song that goes to people united will never be defeated. And when that song picks up with a lot of people banging on cans and making noise, I know that’s all I need to hear.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. Well, you make me laugh, because as a kid, I loved the three Stooges. And there’s a scene in the three Stooges where, Larry Moe and Curly are standing in a canoe, and the canoe gets a hole in it. So Moe picks up a gun and shoots a second hole in it. And they said, what are you doing? He said, well, you got to have another hole, so the water can run out. But that song, The Internationale, and that notion of togetherness is something that has to be elevated to the place where the wolves run scared back into the woods.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Yeah.

Rob Johnson:

And I think that’s the necessary ingredient here.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Rob Johnson:

This has been delightful Anna.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Well, thank you for including me in this archive that you’re making at the moment. I’m really honored to be a part of it.

Rob Johnson:

How would I say, you’re a precious stone in the necklace of this history?

Anna Deavere Smith:

My goodness. Thank you. You too. You too, man. You too.

Rob Johnson:

Well, how I say, we try to give each other a lift and I don’t know. How would I say, from knowing you I can sing amazing grace. I was blind and now I see more so, we’ll have to get together again in another couple months. Do another episode when we can see a little bit over the horizon, when some of the, how I say, some of the uncertainty takes on a different form, but stay strong. And again, thank you for joining me today.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Stay strong and stay safe. Thank you.

Rob Johnson:

You too. Bye-bye.

Anna Deavere Smith:

Bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

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About the Guest

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH is an actress, playwright, teacher, and author. Her most recent play and film, Notes from the Field, look at the vulnerability of youth, inequality, the criminal justice system, and contemporary activism. The New York Times named the stage version of Notes from the Field among The Best Theater of 2016 and Time magazine named it one of the Top 10 Plays of the year. HBO premiered the film version in February 2018.

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