Getting Physical

Anna Deavere Smith returns to Austin to investigate the resilience of the human body

Getting Physical

When she was here last year, Anna Deavere Smith showed us a bit of Austin's soul, through theatrical portraits she created of some signature local personalities she'd interviewed: Molly Ivins, Eddie Wilson, Ann Richards, Cynthia and Lidia Perez, et al. Now, the noted playwright and actor is back in our town, but this time she's more interested in our bodies. Well, to be honest, not just our bodies – everyone's bodies. The creator of Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; and House Arrest is hard at work on a new theatrical project that explores our physical natures, what the body can do, how it can be compromised by illness and injury, how it can recover. The show expands on a previous project exploring doctor-patient relationships that Deavere Smith undertook as a visiting professor at the Yale School of Medicine. In her work on it, she encountered bodies struggling against enormous physical challenges. Now, in addition to the medical environment, she's looking into athletics, the aesthetics of physical beauty, the sex trade, and elsewhere to see what goes on with bodies there. This week, she'll be talking to Austinites about their bodies, and next week she'll present some of what she's heard – here and around the world – in performances at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center. Each performance will include a post-show discussion with special guest respondents from Austin. Prior to her visit, Deavere Smith talked to the Chronicle about what brought her to this work and to Austin.

Austin Chronicle: What sorts of things did you discover as you were working on the Yale work?

Anna Deavere Smith: What I discovered was that people who are either working in that field or are patients like to talk, and they speak openly, for the most part, especially people who are in the process of struggling. They're willing to talk, and that's what I like.

AC: Is that on the doctor side as well as the patient side?

ADS: Well, I wouldn't even call them sides. I would say that it is an inclusive approach. In the case of what I'm specifically going to be doing in Austin, I will have just been at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. That's one of the reasons I'm really excited to be in Texas and coming to Austin.

AC: When I think of MD Anderson, I immediately think of catastrophic health conditions and people in real life-or-death struggles. Was that a big part of your previous exploration, or did it deal more with doctor-patient relationships?

ADS: Well, in those relationships many of the patients were people who had pretty catastrophic illnesses: one of the first people who had ever been diagnosed with AIDS, a man who had had a heart transplant. Sure, once you walk into a hospital, the people there they don't have toothaches. And most of these patients were people who had been treated for a very long time, so they do have very serious illnesses.

AC: Was there anything different for you about connecting with those individuals than with people you interviewed for your previous pieces?

ADS: The biggest difference was that in Washington, which was where I was immediately before I went to Yale – I spent five years there – everybody is ... Thomas Jefferson really is one of the great Founding Fathers; the thing about Jefferson, I was told, was that he could never be found in verbal undress. That's what Washington was like. I had 520 interviews, and people were very careful about what they said, so you really had to unwrap the words. Whereas when I was at Yale, I've got people who were singing and reading poems and taking off their clothes and showing me their scars and introducing me to their families. You know, one woman came with a whole picture album of various stages of her illness. And, actually, in many ways her life changed, I would say, for the better because the more she learned how to deal with her illness, the more kind of authority she had over what was happening to her, the more interesting her lifestyle became. So I would say the difference here is they want to talk, and they really have something to say.

AC: Did that openness or willingness to bring you in on that level surprise you?

ADS: Sure, because I think that most of us who are well, unless we're in the profession of helping people, we don't think to look at illness. We don't think to look at death. So in that way it's an area that is underexplored. And it was underexplored by me. So it's full of surprises. I don't know what to expect, you know, so yeah. And I think that really good doctors, too, are people who understand that every time they meet a patient, they may think they've been there before, but they haven't because they're not just treating a disease but really interacting with a whole human being. And better medical care is medical care where doctors are imaginative about that and have figured out a way to take the time to really treat the patient, not the disease.

AC: And the level of commitment in the doctors?

ADS: I'm really kind of optimistic about that, because I was recently asked to address the 160 students who have just been admitted to NYU Medical School. And they haven't decided necessarily they want to come to NYU, but as sort of a part of NYU courting them they asked me to come and speak to them. And I look out at this audience, and first of all, very few people are white. Many more women than would have been in medicine in the past. The people of color are not, as far as I could tell, by and large African-American or, say, Latino American; they're from all over the world. So, you know, it's not going to be a job for a fat cat anymore. I mean, it's not going to be a job where you can necessarily make lots of money, or that's not why you'd be going into it. It's not a job that's for social status anymore. So I'm interested to see – and I certainly won't find this out in the time that I'm doing this project, but I think that someday doctoring will be kind of an activist thing. I do think that the people who are coming into it now have to be coming into it with a level of commitment. Because the economics of it are changing so dramatically.

AC: Where is this new journey taking you?

ADS: The arc of the show or the scope of it is the resilience and vulnerability of the human body. This is something that Jim Brand, who's a friend of Chula [Reynolds]' and I guess he ran the People's [Community] Clinic, said to me when we were talking about this project, and I thought, you know, that most succinctly describes what I'm trying to do: explore the resilience and the vulnerability of the human body. So medicine is just one front for it. It also has to do with things the body can do – the uncompromised body – the body that responds to the will of the person and even does unbelievable things. I also went to Rwanda this summer to talk to people 10 years after the genocide, and I went to Uganda to interview child soldiers and girl sex slaves who had been abducted into the northern army. And I went to South Africa to look at HIV/AIDS, not just as a medical situation but a political situation, where the president will not step forward and claim it as any kind of national tragedy or emergency, so what happens when the state has power over your body and over your welfare.

AC: Where does this exploration fit into your personal experience: aging, your health, mortality?

ADS: On a personal level, it probably has something to do with my mother's death. She died in 2003. However, it's more about the fact that people are very verbal when it comes to talking about their bodies. And I like to get people to talk to me.

AC: You mentioned being true to the people you've interviewed in representing them on stage. Will the fact that this show deals so specifically with peoples' physical natures create any new challenge for you in bringing that truth to the stage? I'm imagining that this show might encompass everything from bodybuilders to paraplegics.

ADS: I don't know yet about the challenges!

AC: What makes Austin a good place for finding some of the kinds of people you want to explore this topic with?

ADS: Austin is great mostly because of the audience. It's a passionate place with passionate people. I heard that it's a great runner's town. Maybe some runners will talk to me.

AC: What makes Austin a good place for beginning to share this work from the stage?

ADS: See question above – and also because I really like the Zach Scott Theatre, and it's in Austin! My friend Chula Reynolds and I always talked about me coming to Texas, and one thing I want out of the trip is increased ease with calling people dahlin' as a matter of course.

AC: Was there anything you found here that you hadn't expected to find?

ADS: Not yet. Oh well, there is one thing. I was here the weekend of South by Southwest. I was just passing through, and when I got up at 6 to go work out, the hotel lobby was packed with people, I mean packed – already up and waiting to hear music. I wasn't sure if they'd been up all night – but the point was there was not a space to be had. The energy was just amazing. I have never seen a crowd like that anywhere at 6am. end story

Anna Deavere Smith presents portions of her new work in progress May 18-21, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2:30pm, at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center's Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. For information, call 476-0541, or visit

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