What happens when words fail us? In a wide-ranging conversation on the civic role of art, renowned actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith and poet Tom Healy explore the thorny relationship between language, identity and politics.
Tom Healy: You’ve written about what it’s like for us when our language breaks down—how you learn a lot about people when words fail them. We want to communicate, so we have to dig down deeper—for other resources. Have you had an experience where you’ve felt words have failed you?
Anna Deveare Smith: What a great question. Something happened in class today—I teach a class called “Performing Identities”—where one of the students performed some work about her family that was unbelievably moving. It was just so beautifully rendered and there was so much pain in the story. I noticed that one woman was very moved and I looked at her and asked, “Donna, would you like to say something?” And she just put her hand on her chest and shook her head and said, “Can’t.”
We all know those moments where we don’t have thoughts; we certainly have feelings, but we can’t find the words. And I think that actions sometimes happen when there aren’t any words. Violence, too. Martin Luther King famously said that a riot is the language of the unheard. On the other hand, people make love when there’s nothing to talk about. This relationship between language and action has always interested me, so I’ve been particularly drawn to the first-person narrative, the monologue. When someone’s talking to me from a place where they struggle with words, as an actress I believe that that will give me a way to enter something else about them that’s bigger and more powerful than words.This article was originally published in Creative Time Reports.