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Anna Deavere Smith: The We of Me
June 12, 2008

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith gave the final talk in the American Pictures Distinguished Lecture Series. Smith spoke about a Ruth Orkin photo, Member of the Wedding, Opening Night, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers, and Julie Harris, New York City, 1950. I never knew that a seemingly quiet photo could say so much.

Smith, whom many people know from her recurring role on the NBC show The West Wing is a playwright as well as an actress. It's these two distinctive roles tied together that gave her such an interesting perspective on the Orkin image. Waters and Harris are the actresses; McCullers the astounding author who wrote Member of the Wedding.

As way of background, Smith brought us back to the 1980s and her early days in New York City when she performed at Joe Papp's Public Theater. That's when I first saw her performance piece, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. At the time we were both working on projects with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Artistic director Judith Jamison and she were creating "Hymn: For Alvin Ailey." Smith interviewed the dancers and captured the rhythm and cadences of their voices, then spoke them onstage while each dancer performed. Jamison choreographed the homage to Ailey.

During these heady days in New York, Smith wandered into the Rizzoli bookstore on Fifth Avenue, and saw a show of Ruth Orkin's work that made an indelible impression on her. When Smith was able to afford it, she bought a print of the Orkin photo of opening night of Member of the Wedding.

In the play, the Julie Harris character, Frankie, is a girl turning into a woman, or perhaps a tomboy turning into a girl. Her life choices seem limited; her imagination is not. She lives with her younger brother and their caretaker Bernice, played by Ethel Waters. Life for the three of them is stifling; Frankie wants more. Frankie is searching for herself and refers to her older brother and his fiance as "the we of me." She had been looking for a "we" to belong to, and thinks she has found it.  If only she can run away with them...

Smith took us on a journey from the text of the play to the Orkin photo where it's Carson McCullers who is nestled into Ethel Waters, and seems to be searching for a sense of belonging. It's as if the playwright has turned into her own lead character. On the other hand, Julie Harris is pictured smoking a cigarette and drinking both a glass of champagne and what looks like an espresso. She's hit the opening night trifecta. According to Smith, the photo is an image of "the we of me," of people finding a connection. On opening night in the Orkin photo, it looks as if McCullers has found her "we of me."

Posted by Howard on June 12, 2008 in Lectures on American Art


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