When art takes a stand

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure.”

Prof. Jill Dolan, guest blogger

This year’s presidential medals for the arts and humanities honored many important women artists and scholars, including performer-writer-journalist Anna Deavere Smith. She received a humanities medal for, as the citation reads, “her portrayal of authentic American voices. Through profound performances and plays that blend theatre and journalism, she has informed our understanding of social issues and conveyed a range of disparate characters.”

Smith is an enormously talented artist who first found acclaim with her one-woman show, Fires in the Mirror (1993), in which she performed verbatim interviews she conducted with African Americans and Chasidic Jews in the racially charged Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. With her sharp juxtaposition of monologues she had collected, Smith asked audiences to ponder the complexities of race and ethnic relations across our communities.

Smith has continued to produce ethnographic, multi-character, verbatim monologues in what she calls her “On the Road” series throughout her distinguished career. Her most recent performance, Let Me Down Easy, addressed health care in the U.S. and how people around the globe relate in the most intimate and public ways to our bodies’ mortality.

In addition to her talents as a theatre artist, Smith is a regular on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, the series starring Edie Falco as an emergency nurse with a drug addiction. As Gloria Akalitus, the ER administrator, Smith brings smart physical and intellectual comedy to her role as the wry, often brusque former nurse who empathizes with her staff but is often enmeshed in hospital power politics impossible for any professional woman to ignore. The role offers Smith a terrific platform for her comic chops, as well as for her unsentimental portrayal of real emotions in complex personal and professional relationships.

As a theatre, television, and film performer, as well as a social justice activist who uses her visibility and public forum to political ends, Smith has long served as a role model for my students. Too often, hopeful young artists—especially actors—are taught to accommodate themselves to the dictates of the “profession,” by focusing on their weight and their appearances and how their gender, race, and ethnicity might typecast them in a desperately unimaginative Hollywood landscape.

Smith models being an artist who commits to working both inside and outside of the industry’s system, using her craft for smart entertainment but also directly applying her talents to the politics that are always a part of theatre, performance, and popular culture. She embodies Bertolt Brecht’s suggestion that if your art doesn’t take a stand, it becomes part of the status quo.

Smith is an aligned artist, unafraid to make her politics integral to her work. How many visible, publicly known performers can say the same? Angelina Jolie’s global humanitarian work and her recent revelations about the medical steps she took to prevent her own potential breast cancer have changed how people think of her as an artist and a public personality. While Jolie’s box office clout puts her in control of her own game, others have to be more careful. Ellen Page, a younger, Canadian actor whose work I admire (Juno, Inception, The East), bemoaned in a recent interview with The Guardian, how the industry machine demands that women turn into objects for the camera’s gaze. After her Academy Award nomination for Juno, Page reports she disappeared to an eco-village in Oregon for a while, just to avoid the punishing glare of the media machine.

Page also happily calls herself a feminist. In her Guardian interview, she says,

“I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word? . . . Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement – good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t disagree with it.”

Good for her. And good for Smith and Jolie and Kerry Washington and Melissa McCarthy and all the women performers across theatre, film, television, and other media who understand the power of their words and their artistic and professional choices. We need them all.

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