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Theatre and Art Encourage Healing, Activism at Barnard Conference

By Jo Kadlecek

Anna Deavere Smith

Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith is not necessarily impressed when audiences stand and applaud her at the end of a show. She'd rather have them go home and talk about what they just experienced. "The bigger question is the 'now what' question. We just saw this show, now what are we going to do about it?" Smith says.

In other words, theatre is not only about tricks on stage. Smith believes "it has a lot more potential than that," and could be used not only to help create a sense of community and healing, but a vision for social change as well.

Best known for her one-woman plays about racial tensions in American cities -- "Twilight Los Angeles" (Obie Award-winner and Tony Award nominee) and "Fires in the Mirror" (Obie Award-winner and runner-up for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize) where she plays multiple characters -- Smith challenges audiences to think differently about theatre and the role of artists [especially] in university settings.

Smith's thoughts served as an insightful climax to a recent seminar entitled "Public Sentiments: Trauma, Memory, History and Action." Sponsored by Barnard College's Center for Research on Women, the 27th annual Scholar and the Feminist Conference drew over 100 participants for the day-long discussion on how artistic efforts promote healing and activism. Scholars, artists, students, and activists joined Smith to consider how tragedies such as the Sept. 11th attacks affect public emotion as well as how social and historical actions have fueled injustices both domestically and abroad.

"This conference was a compelling exploration of how the strong emotional responses evoked by accounts of trauma and suffering can serve as calls for responsible social action," said Judith Shapiro, Barnard College president. "It also invited us to ponder both the power of first-hand testimony and the transformation of direct experience into successful works of artistic expression."

During the morning panel discussion, in fact, participants listened to the testimony of Chilean activist Nieves Ayress who recalled her difficult experiences as a prisoner tortured during Pinochet's dictatorship. After her years in prison, Avress was exiled and eventually settled in New York City where she co-founded a grassroots community center in the South Bronx.

Avress' poignant account stirred further thought, discussion and emotion during specific workshops that focused on other historical or national traumas such as American slavery, the Holocaust, and the AIDS crisis. Mary Marshall Clark, director of Columbia's Oral History Research Office, facilitated a workshop on "Public Memory, Private Narratives: The Sept. 11 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project."

"The goal [was] to spark a dialogue on how social justice movements are formed, executed, and defined by the emotions and struggles of their respective communities," said Janet Jakobsen, director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women. "How, for instance, do public sentiments enable -- or block -- movements for social change? And if we consider such movements broadly, so as to include socially conscious art and performance, then how do artistic renderings of public sentiment contribute to, or intervene in the formation of communities and their actions?"

Ann Pellegrini, associate professor of drama at the University of California at Irvine, who joined Smith in the afternoon discussion, emphasized how "vital art is in transforming our national life. How can we take it more seriously?"

"We all have a responsibility. We can be imaginative about preparing audiences to learn to listen and to respond," Smith responded. Hailed by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in the American theater," Smith received a 1996 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship for creating "a new form of theater -- a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie." She recently initiated a "think and do" tank that brought people from a variety of vocations together to the theatre to address these certain social issues.

"We were especially fortunate in having Anna Deveare Smith at Barnard to help us explore just what it is that makes art efficacious in changing the world in which we live," Shapiro said.

Published: Mar 11, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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