Posts Tagged ‘the politics of body’

Question Mark, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, all photos © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

A few weeks ago, I watched an interview on Bill Moyers Journal and was mesmerized by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. It is tough work. She takes on controversial subjects most would not touch in our sanitized, politically correct language of the day. Her 1992 one-woman performance Fires in the Mirror explored the violence between Jews and Blacks after an August 1991 civic disturbance in the New York neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her solo performance in Twilight: Los Angeles dramatized the 1992 riots that broke out in L.A. following the first Rodney King trial.

For her current one-woman play Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed Americans from all walks of life about healthcare, medical, and end of life issues. After 9 years and 300 plus interviews, she chose 20 people; through their words, body language and speech, she transforms on stage into each one. I’ve only seen snippets of her 90 minute performance on TV. And from bullrider to politician to Buddhist monk, I could hear the voice of all America inserted into the healthcare debate, leaving little room for doubt — something has to change.

We are trying to bring disparate worlds together, not so that we can all get along, but so we can see out of the ‘me’ into ‘us.’

— Anna Deavere Smith



Below are few notes I jotted down while listening to her conversation with Bill Moyers. A few may seem cryptic, but will make more sense when you watch the interview:

  • The title Let Me Down Easy came to her almost out of a dream. There are two songs with the name. Of the title, James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary said they are the words of a broken heart and can be interpreted as broken love. “Don’t do it harshly. Not too mean. Let it be easy.”
  • Let Me Down Easy is a call about grace and kindness in a world that lacks that often —  in a winner take all world.
  • Death is the ultimate form of loss, the ultimate form of abandonment
  • It broke her heart to know that we, with all of our money and technology, believe that we can afford to leave people so alone
  • Are we afraid of being poor, afraid of losing, afraid of being sick? Is that why we distance ourselves from that reality all around us?
  • She chose these 20 particular people because they are very connected to the life cycle – death and life
  • The most important thing you can do is be with someone when they die
  • Art comes in when the official language falls apart. When things fall apart, you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.

What seems to be important to Anna Deavere Smith is the art of listening. And letting what she hears soak into each cell of her body. Words matter. People matter. She believes something she learned from her grandfather (who was also the inspiration for her method of theater) — if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. In a New York Times article Through 1 Woman, 20 Views of Life’s End she says, “I try to embody America by embodying its words.”

Near the end of the interview, Bill Moyers asked, “When did you begin to listen to people so acutely?” Anna said when she was young, she lived next to a woman who weighed 400 pounds. The neighbor would ask her to go to the store to buy her fatback and she’d love to sit on her porch and listen to her stories —  that’s when she started really listening.


Writing Topic — 3 Questions

How do we teach ourselves to listen? How do we get people to talk about what has meaning for them, moving beyond repetition or sound bites? In Anna’s words, “I say their words over and over. I listen and I wear the words.”

She said she also taught herself to listen by breaking up certain rhythmic speech patterns. She met a linguist at a cocktail party in 1979 who said she would give her 3 questions that were guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves:

Have you ever come close to death?

Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?

Do you know the circumstances of your birth?

And that’s the inspiration for this Writing Topic — 3 Questions.

Choose one of the 3 questions above. Write it down at the top of your paper. Take out a fast writing pen and do a timed 15 minute Writing Practice.

Maybe 3 questions, combined with the wild mind of Writing Practice, will break patterns in our writing and lead us to listen more closely to our own voices.



Anna Deavere Smith is on fire. In pursuit of her mission to translate art into social commentary about race, poverty, and injustice, she’s won two Obie Awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys, and is a recipient of the prized MacArthur fellowship. (Not to mention her role in NBC’s The West Wing, as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally.) You can read more about Anna Deavere Smith at Bill Moyers Journal. Or watch the full interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Bill Moyers at this link.

In November, the Moth Storytelling Awards in New York honored her as their 2009 recipient at the Annual Moth Ball. The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy covered the event which was also attended by writer Garrison Keillor. On the subject of healthcare, the blog references a compelling verbal account from Keillor that night about his stroke in September. He had the stroke while on a massage table, eventually drove himself to the ER, and waited 15 minutes in line before he was able to tell anyone he was having a stroke. Read the full story at Speakeasy: Jonathan Ames, Garrison Keillor and Anna Deavere Smith Headline Annual Moth Ball.

In some ways the most effective politicians are the ones who have the best verbal clothes that they manipulate the best way. And there is a gap between that type of clothing and where people walk and where people live.

Whitman was doing another kind of work for the country at that time. Speaking a different song. And I think the politicians can sing to us but I respect, in a way, the limitation of their language. I mean I guess it’s a part of our culture that goes back as far as Jefferson, that they have to be so careful about what they say. My only desire would then be that we would find other places in our culture to work out our differences.

— Anna Deavere Smith from Bill Moyers Journal, November 2009

-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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There is a lost feeling that comes over me this time of year. In the gap between New Year’s and whatever happens next in my life. That’s not specific enough. Lost is a feeling. And a place.

Specifics. Next gains in employment. Which aspects of moneymaking do I add to the writing agenda? How do I balance making money from writing with my creative writing, the blog, my book, the simple, unbridled pleasure of setting words down on the page.

I’ve got a plan. A Vision. It became clear when I did my gratitude list. It’s the same plan I had a few months ago. Next steps, a flyer for teaching, taking the blog to the next level, or letting go. The lost feeling stirs me to the dregs of decisions – what do I let go of. What do I hold on to. Letting go implies a sense of loss. I don’t like to feel loss.

A snowstorm is moving in from the West. Sweeping cold, after 42 degree drips off the eaves, sliding down the gutter and into dead mahogany grass. Across the screensaver, photographs, ghosts of last summer. The rain that fell like hail, and looked like snow. The tiny side garden that forms a half moon on the hill, lined with river rocks. And each year we add another variety of plant or flower.

Still no details. I’m looking to land.

I’m thinking about gender differences when it comes to emotions. Some of it is the way we are hardwired to operate in the world. From a very young age, girls and boys are corralled and branded according to gender. But some of it is hormonal. No one (man or woman) wants to hear the “H” word when it relates to women. Yet hormone comes from the Greek, “hormon”  — that which sets in motion, impels, or urges on. What’s wrong with that?

And hormones are all the rage when it comes to steroids and sports. Secretly, this country thinks that men have a god-given right to harden and bulk up. Yet women, no right to a moment of tenderness or vulnerability.

Bodies. Men and women have different chasseys; different fluids keep their bodies running. The most recent evidence of this for me was reading about a woman who was undergoing the process of changing to a man. Sometimes the soul of a man gets trapped in a female body. Sometimes the spirit of a woman gets trapped in a male. People have the right to do with their own bodies what they will. I don’t judge.

The woman was in a relationship with another woman. They were partners. When she began taking the testosterone for the curves of her body to transform and harden, something else happened – she stopped crying. This was a woman who had cried freely and easily all her life, felt strong emotion, was connected to her feelings.

After testosterone, no more tears.

I don’t understand all the details in the internal workings of hormones. But I know they make a difference in the way we connect and operate in the world. To expect women to act like men is not reasonable. It’s not even something I would want. I have empathy and respect for the attributes that both sexes bring to the table.

The woman taking the testosterone is struggling in her relationship. And she is distraught at the change in her emotional makeup. Her partner, fully supportive of the bodily changes, is wondering what happened to the soft, empathetic personality of the woman she fell in love with. Is she gone forever? Who better than this couple to glean a better understanding of the hormonal realities and shifts between men and women.

Why do men, if they do, cry secretly. And women cry openly. Several of our readers have commented on breaking down at work at least once in their careers. About going through a rough patch, losing it emotionally, crying or raging in the workplace.

The same thing happened to me about 5 years ago, right before I left the corporate environment I had worked in for 9 years. There was lots of stress in my personal life. Yet I managed 3 teams of over 30 people and had to keep it together at work. One week, I couldn’t contain it anymore. I broke down.

I wasn’t looked at the same after that either. I was seen as a less effective leader. The managers under me (all women) became suspicious of my decisions. I took some time off to regroup. Fortunately, I already had plans to leave that career path for my writing. So I don’t know how it would have worked out if I had stayed.

I might have applied for a job where I no longer had to manage people. Middle management is a thankless job. You’re trapped between everyday complaints from teams of hardworking employees, and the rigid dictation of corporate management whose talons swoop down from above. It’s a big fat game.

The pressure is huge for women to conform to the systems already in place: in work, in politics, in love. But if they truly honored that request, they would no longer be able to contribute the myriad of gifts that make them women. There is no winning.

Hillary has given rise again to the complicated issues around gender gaps. I think the debate is good. But if we’re going to hold her to such high standards, it follows that we should also put the same pressures on fathers, uncles, nephews, sons – to make them break down and cry. The next time their child is in pain. Or they celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Or a close friend at work is in an accident and won’t be returning. Or what about when they read of a country whose citizens are being slain, through the systematic murder of genocide.

Yeah, maybe we should expect them to force themselves to cry. The way the systems of power in the world force us to try not to. To push our politicians to show some kind of human emotion in situations where any normal person would be grateful for the capacity to feel.

I don’t have any answers. This is a writing practice – feelings and thoughts rambling around in my head this morning. It’s not edited or polished. It’s not anything – but practice. A release from having to control all those pent up emotions. And wonderment at why, after half a century of living as a woman, I only have more questions.

-posted on red Ravine, Thursday, January 10th, 2008

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY and the post, Do You Do Politics?

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