ANNA DEAVERE SMITH’S REMARKS UPON ACCEPTING THE GEORGE POLK AWARD
April 7, 2017
Thank you, John Darnton. Thank you, Charlayne. There are many people I could thank – theaters, philanthropists, other artists – regrettably they are not here. I will thank Stephanie Schneider from the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at NYU, who helped us wrangle audiences of 500 people into small groups, so we could have discussions during my last play – a form of civic engagement. And thank you to Allyson Green, Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts, because I am given enough flexibility to do my work, but to still be in the rich intellectual community of my colleagues and students.
Christians around the world are readying themselves for Easter Sunday – and the week that precedes it.
I am an Episcopalian. At my church, Grace Cathedral, on Good Friday, the church will be stripped of its color, its candles, its flowers. The priests will wear simple long black cassocks, their capes and other colors left in the closet.
The story of Jesus’s arrest and the conversation he had with Pontius Pilate found in the Gospel of John may be read. Jesus was bound and taken to Pilate.
“Pilate came out to them and said, ‘What charge do you bring [against] this man?’
They answered and said to him, ‘If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’
At this, Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.’
The Jews answered him, ‘We do not have the right to execute anyone.’
So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?’
Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?’
Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’
So Pilate said to him, ‘Then you are a king?’
Jesus answered, ‘You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'”
“What is truth?”
This has perplexed great minds for a long time. Was this sarcasm? What kind of person was Pilate?
What is truth?
I studied acting in a conservatory, and grasped some of the so-called theories for telling either the biggest lies or the biggest truths. I did well enough that I was soon invited to teach.
On a regular basis, the entire conservatory would gather in a large room, and student actors would display scene work and brace themselves for the critique of the assembled faculty. All trainers were required to attend – acting teachers, voice teachers, yoga teachers, etc. A cluster of the acting teachers would sit together in the front row. I’d look down at my colleagues and see a long line of cowboy boots. Everybody else was a white man, except me.
And we told ourselves that we were some kind of divine enterprise: theater-making. Or foolishness, if you will. Divine foolishness. Because the fool is a truth-teller, supposedly. The value system we had was centered on truth. The truth was the truth of your self. You entered the character by bringing your psychological self, warts and all. This truth, and only this truth, would illuminate the character and make its way into the heart of an audience. It was thus that we might provide a cathartic experience and make a contribution to the betterment of mankind.
It was the YOU in Hamlet and the Hamlet in YOU that we were after. As nervous students applied their body and soul and heart and gesture to being brothers Biff and Happy from Death of a Salesman, sitting in their imagined bedrooms, or Walter Lee and Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, arguing in the living room of their Chicago home, or Hamlet, or Ophelia, at a certain point one of those men sitting in the front row would yell out, “You’re lying!”
The actor being accused of the lie was likely to shrink inside from humiliation, burst out into heartbroken sobs, or struggle to suppress rage, depending on their own psychology and biographical response to the deep and paternalistic voice yelling “liar” across the rehearsal hall.
I was never sold on that particular pedagogy, either as a student or a teacher. I had myself avoided being yelled at while in school – pretty much. I spent hours on the top floor of the conservatory, reading everything I could about that theory, which was born in the 19th century at a school in Moscow, fathered by a man named Konstantin Stanislavski. It was even harder for me to open my heart to this discourse because in his most famous book, the first story is about a Russian student who came to class painted in chocolate in order to play Othello. The point of this story was that you don’t have to wear chocolate to find a Negroid in Othello. But still, it was a rough start.
The one thing that I could take from that experience was the idea of “as if.”
It’s “as if” the actor is living in the circumstances of the character. I learned to do my craft by living in the limbo state of metaphor. Imagining as vividly as I could, through trips to museums photographs, newspapers, articles, magazines, documentary films, listening to music – how the humans that I sought to represent lived.
I eventually took my study to observing human beings. Observing their words, their cadences, their gestures, and now their utterances and, in particular, the sentences that they don’t complete. If you think of it, the word sentence is a sentence.
My grandfather, a black man who started a business in Baltimore with a basket of tea, had said when I was a child that if you say a word often enough it becomes you. “It becomes you.” Having been brought up in the lies that justified de facto segregation in Baltimore, a limbo town not North not South, this adage became my walking papers to become America word for word. And that’s how I’ve spent my adult life.
My acting boils down to living in the “as if.” I am not the person I seek to portray. If I am intoxicated enough by the mysterious workings of words in my mind and body, I am not myself. So, I am not the character, and I am not myself. I am a “not not,” which is another positive.
People come backstage and say things to me like, for example – I worked very hard to portray as honestly as I could, which just meant being accurate about his sounds and gestures, Lance Armstrong. And people would come backstage and say things like, “You nailed the mother fucker.” Or, more reverently, recently in my play about the school-to-prison pipeline and my hope for a new Civil Rights movement, where I portrayed Congressman John Lewis, people come backstage and say, “Oh my God, I just saw John Lewis, you nailed him.” And certainly the first famous person I ever interviewed, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, came to see me perform, flanked by both her husbands, an ex-husband and a current husband. And I think they thought I nailed you.
It has never been my goal to “nail” anyone. I get the limitations of language; intention is what matters, and that praise is a nice salve when one is wiping off the make-up and restoring one’s self to one’s self.
I have been trying so hard to become America word for word. I go where things have fallen apart. One place I went was Los Angeles, after the riots in 1992. I did over 320 interviews. I could not find the truth. I found an assemblage of stories, and I strove to weave them into a fictitious narrative that would perhaps give the audience a feeling that something made sense – if not truth.
Among the first twenty of those interviews was Johnnie Cochran, who gave me another adage:
“There are three sides to every story – yours, mine, and the truth.”
I am happy to be here with the family of George Polk. I did not know much about Mr. Polk until I was called about this great honor. On one of the forays into my research to try to understand George Polk and why he means so much to you, a grid of images came up – lots of times images had come up as I went through Google. But this one time, there was an image, a black-and-white photo, and that photo looked a classic clown.
It would appear from popular culture that the highest praise an actor could get is an Oscar or an Emmy. But yet, when our craftsmen study, we are trained that the highest praise could be to be called a fool or a clown. Because it is the fool who would risk getting shot or killed to tell the truth that no other citizen would dare say in the presence of the king.
The photograph that I saw in that grid, as I enlarged it, looked to be of a person in baggy pants, unshaven, with some kind of white, almost clown, make-up on his face. You know, “Chaplin-esque.”
It was the corpse of George Polk – bound, gagged, shot in the back of the head.
In the bibliography of Kati Marton’s book The Polk Conspiracy there is a listing for a letter that George Polk wrote to Newsweek, dated December 6, 1947. I will read a bit of it here:
“This is a letter that should have been written long ago. But it’s been delayed, let’s face it, by avarice, my own avarice. Further, this letter pivots on the date January 1, 1948. On that date, as you may remember in your last letter to me about part-time reporters for Newsweek, you indicated that I might be in for a raise of pay.
However, Harry, before that date, in fact upon receipt of this letter, I wish to terminate my connection with Newsweek.
Bluntly, Harry, I don’t like the job Newsweek is doing. I don’t think the book is balanced; I don’t think the book is enlightened; I don’t like the innuendoes that seem to me to have become Newsweek’s stock in trade; I don’t agree with the magazine’s editorial thinking; and most of all I resent the manner in which Newsweek labels a product as “significant,” but which I regard as often significantly distorted.
Of course, I know that a letter like this could draw charges that I’m a Communist, but I’ll stand on my past, present, and future work to refute such a possible charge. Actually, that is one of the charges I make against Newsweek—too free use of that word. Even more specifically, what I’m trying to do is to make an argument for the need for objectivity in reporting… not just telling a story with all the facts readily available; instead, I think the word requires going out and getting every available fact before even attempting to write a balanced story.”
I intend to spend much more time learning more about George Polk. He is a sniffer. He sniffed for truth. The facts of his death still live in a limbo inviting frustration, but also truth-seeking.
I have no business here, only delight at being among you, the seekers in our culture.
We need the spirit of George Polk now more than ever. I don’t know about you, but he has certainly strengthened my resolve to wrestle with the always-unclear, never-sure truth. Maybe it is the pursuit that matters.
Congratulations to you all, and thank you for having me.