Anna Deavere Smith at the A.R.T.

AUG 18, 2022

In the 30 years since Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 made its world premiere, Anna Deavere Smith’s landmark documentary plays have borne witness to communities in crisis across the US and internationally. Newly revised for an ensemble cast, Twilight marks Smith’s fourth production at A.R.T., following Fires in the Mirror (1992), Let Me Down Easy (2008), and Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education (2016), in addition to her three-year residency at Harvard as the leader of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue (1998 – 2000).

Fires in the Mirror

In 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a car in a Hasidic rabbi’s motorcade jumped a curb, killing a seven-year-old Guyanese-American boy. Riots quickly erupted, resulting in violence including the murder of a young Hasidic professor. In the wake of the crisis, Smith interviewed hundreds of community members, including victims’ families, religious leaders, and media figures. While in residence at Harvard as a Fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Smith wove this testimony together into a collective portrait of American conflict—brought to life through Smith’s rigorous dialect and movement work. Fires in the Mirror was also adapted for television under the direction of George C. Wolfe, and aired on PBS’ “American Playhouse” in 1993.

Anna Deavere Smith in Fires in the Mirror at the New York Shakespeare Festival (1992): Martha Swope, courtesy of New York Public Library.
Anna Deavere Smith in Fires in the Mirror
Anna Deavere Smith in Fires in the Mirror

Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue

In 1998, supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation, Smith created the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard under the joint sponsorship of the A.R.T. and the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute. The three-year program explored ways in which artists from all disciplines, in association with scholars and community leaders, can enhance public discussions of vital social issues. The Institute convened during the summers of 1998, 1999, and 2000 in Cambridge.

Let Me Down Easy 

Anna Deavere Smith as Mathieu Ricard.

Let Me Down Easy offered a virtuosic exploration of the resourcefulness of the human spirit. Channeling a dramatic range of interview subjects, from artists and philosophers to healthcare professionals and survivors of the Rwandan genocide, this piece investigated the ways that individuals pursue compassion, generosity, and grace in contexts where those qualities are too often lacking. Smith performed Let Me Down Easy at the A.R.T. as a workshop of a play that was still in the process of being made. Subsequently, a production was mounted in New York City that went on to tour and to be made as a film for PBS.

Anna Deavere Smith in Let Me Down Easy (2008): Michael J. Lutch, American Repertory Theater.
Anna Deavere Smith as Elaine Scarry sitting at a desk.

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education 

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education

Notes from the Field portrayed the students, parents, law enforcement officers, activists, teachers, and other individuals caught in America’s “school-to-prison pipeline.” Developed through Smith’s signature method of wide-ranging interviews, the piece was performed by Smith and cellist Marcus Shelby. The A.R.T. production also featured an “Act II” of facilitated audience discussions around the themes of the show. A film version of the play was released by HBO in 2018.

Anna Deavere Smith and Marcus Shelby in Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education: Evgenia Eliseeva, A.R.T.
Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992

Four performers looking out over LA with a fifth looking to camera in spotlight.

Twilight opens at the A.R.T. in August 2022, three decades after the show’s world premiere in Los Angeles. Newly revised for an ensemble cast, and directed by Taibi Magar (We Live in Cairo, Macbeth In Stride), Twilight extends the urgent inquiry of all Smith’s work to new generations of artists and audiences. Read more about the upcoming production in this issue of the A.R.T. Guide.

Wesley T. Jones (as Twilight Bey) in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 at Signature Theatre: Joan Marcus.

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