Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith examines the conflicts that bind us in an MLK-inspired show at The Broad Stage

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A stereotype of playwrights has them conjuring characters from air in solitary quarters.

In contrast, Tony-nominated actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith has developed a form of “documentary theatre” for which she can interview hundreds of people about pressing issues of justice and societal concern before inhabiting many of those characters in one-woman shows.

Since winning a Drama Desk Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination for 1993’s “Fires in the Mirror” and Tony nominations for 1994’s “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” the 64-year-old artist and educator has created half a dozen plays and earned a MacArthur Award and National Humanities Medal. The Baltimore native has also become a familiar presence to TV audiences thanks to roles in “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.”

Her work examines complex questions — What is just? Who defines truth? — and the human need for connection.

This week The Broad Stage presents her show “Never Givin’ Up,” about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in which he famously proclaimed that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

— Bliss Bowen

How does “Never Givin’ Up” differ from your usual projects?

There are musicians involved, [violinist] Bob McDuffie and [pianist] Anne Epperson. Also, when I read from Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ that is a reading of a piece of literature, really.

Will you perform characters from your own pieces?    

Yes, as another part of the evening.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s letter, it’s easier to persuade people to sign petitions than attend demonstrations. Do you think that’s a by-product of cynicism about how government works?

I don’t know if we can say it’s just cynicism that keeps people from going out and protesting. Part of it is that we live in a way more divided society now, even though what King was fighting was segregation; we have other kinds of divisions. I think it’s harder for people of all races who have comfortable lives to understand how bad it is for people who are living in poverty. They may not think it really affects their lives very much, and there are ways that we can now live without ourselves having to touch the same kind of despair that more people of color, for example, experienced in King’s time.

The other thing you suggest, which is also relevant, is that social media for any movement does not require that you leave the comfort of your living room. … I would never say that social media can’t be a tool of activism. But it’s different. You’re not gonna see people in the streets as before, necessarily, unless there’s a real big explosion like what happened in Ferguson.

Are we as a nation suffering a crisis of integrity or empathy burnout?

That’s another good question. I don’t know. I think that we have work to do, to be empathic. But it may be that it’s not just empathy. Maybe we really need to understand, as King does in the letter, that we are “tied in a single garment of destiny.” I don’t think people completely understand that we are interconnected, that we don’t really live as easily as we think that we do in separate pockets of reality.

During a lecture in Washington D.C. last week you said you want to see if theater can accomplish something that politics can’t. Would you expound on that?

Theater has throughout history done that. [Like] Tony Kushner and his extraordinary play “Angels in America.” He really did a lot to raise awareness about that disease [AIDS] and also about the gay lifestyle [and] affected attitudes about the way people live and who they love. Throughout history there have been works of art, whether it’s films or television shows or pieces of music … that affected how we do things and change. I was talking specifically about a play that I’m working on now, about what’s called the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s a lot of work going on with all kinds of policy makers and activists who want to make a difference in terms of what happens to poor kids in schools. I just see myself joining up in that army in my own way; I can raise awareness.

Your book “Talk to Me” incorporated a Studs Turkel quote about “defining moments in history.” Are recent events like Ferguson or Eric Gardner’s death “defining moments”?

Studs’ point, which is really great, is that there is no defining moment. There’s accretion of moments that add up. For example, even things happening now that are questions about law and order. One of the pieces I’m going to do at The Broad is Congressman John Lewis talking about the role of police chiefs in the civil rights movement.

Or in this very city — I wrote a play about the Los Angeles riots in 1992, when Rodney King was beaten by police. One reason LA exploded [was] a long history of people feeling they were being treated unjustly by police officers. Living in L.A. in the 1980s, I used to go to the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown; I would leave the theater at night and drive back to West Hollywood, and there would be a long city block of men lined up against the building, one next to the other — I didn’t know there could be that many people — and police officers going down the whole line of men and frisking them.

In Los Angeles there’s always been this animosity between poor people, mostly black and Latino men, and police officers. The late Johnnie Cochran would tell you that that’s the way he spent his career, trying to bring down the “thin blue line.”
It paid off for him, regardless of how you feel about the result; he was able to use all that work to vindicate OJ Simpson by making it all about the cops. So what Studs said about accretion — these things go on and on and on, and there are certain times that the match gets lit and the fire takes. They don’t really come out of nowhere.

In “Talk to Me,” you wondered what people who “have everything” still hope for. At this point, when you’ve achieved a great deal, what do you still hope for?

I still hope to be a better artist. I hope to be a better writer and better actor, a better friend, better sibling, better niece, better cousin. I hope to be a more compassionate person. I don’t think my goals have changed in any way than when I was 21 … I’m on the same journey, just a different place on the map.

Anna Deavere Smith performs “Never Givin’ Up” today through Sunday (and again on April 25 and 26) at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $29 to $55. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com or annadeaveresmithprojects.net.

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