Performing Trauma: Race Riots and Beyond in the work of Anna Deavere Smith

Alison Forsyth

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Those working within the documentary form, during 'what ha become the long moment after September 11th' (Dolan, 2006,p. 3) are thus compelled to formulate new ways to escape the melancholic recycling of the numerous tragid stories on stage 'which no less than tragedy itself, dull our critical receptors and prevent historical complexity and our complexity in it - from emerging' (Diamond, qtd in Romain, 2002, p.137). This then is the painfully inescapable context of Smith's 2006 proclamation to current and future documentarians - a required preamble to this discussion of her own highly distinctive and instructive approach to 'performing trauma' in relation to the race riots in New York and Los Angeles during the early 1990s. In both Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, Smith investigates the ugly and violent racial conflict that beset major cities in the United States - the former focussing on the interracial unrest between the black and the Jewish communities in an an area of New York, following the accidental death of a black child as a result of being hit by an allegedly speeding car that formed part of a Hassidic rabbi's motorcade, and the latter, an exploration of the effects of the terrifying violence and mayhem in Los Angeles that ensued after the acquittal of the four police officers charged with the beating of black motorist, Rodney King. NULL NULL Chapter appears in 'Get Real' Edited book (hdbk 2009, pbk 2011) ALF will return either this chapter or the edited book for REF ENG This book chapter revisits two plays by Anna Deavere Smith - Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles in an effort to comment upon how we might utilise the documentary form to convey an authentic and creative response to urban trauma, and in particular in the aftermath of 9/11. It is argued that Deavere Smith provides an early and distinctively original intervention in this field of performance - through work which is an explosively potent combintation of both a dramatic practice created about a community and a dramatic practice created within a community. It is posited that Smith's work exemplifies the aims and objectives traditionally associated with documentary theatre: namely, to artfully reveal the circumstances around a past event, as well as employing strategies commonly utilised in socially engaged community theatre - such as interviews, oral testimony, and an open forum for the often therapeutic expression of community opinions, with a view to social transformation. In addition a distinctive aspect of such work by Smith is the rapidity with which she collects and collates information, interviews, testimony from a multitude of (sometimes conflicting) perspectives - before such material might fall victim to ideological sequestration and distortion. This immediacy makes Smith's work so potently authentic, because they document" aspects of tumultuous and traumatic social experience before the experience is subjected to any potential or subsequent appropriation or indeed elision within hegemonic historical narratives. The chapter argues that in the aftermath of 9/11, public discussions about how and by whom memory, particularly memory of traumatic events, is shaped and articulated have become particularly urgent, and it is argued that Smith's quixotic and arresting approach to performative "documentation" in these early plays still provides a space in which such contentious debates can be problematized, embodied and brought into compelling focus.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGet Real
Subtitle of host publicationDocumentary Theatre Past and Present
EditorsAlison Forsyth, Chris Megson
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9780230236943
ISBN (Print)9780230221154, 9780230336896
Publication statusPublished - 01 Apr 2009

Publication series

NamePerformance Interventions edited by Elaine Aston and Brian Reynolds


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