“Smith looks for the character of the nation through idiosyncrasies in order to thwart traditional stereotypes and elaborate on her own sense of history.” —Embodying Hybridity: Anna Deavere Smith’s Identity Cross-Overs by Xavier Lemoine, page 241
The role of stereotypes in Anna Deavere Smith’s performance is a topic that a lot of my fellow Humesters wrote about, and for good reason– it’s really fascinating. I picked this quote to focus on because it lines up with my thoughts on how exactly this role plays out: that while Smith portrays people who at a glance could easily be relegated to a single title or name (and even possibly leans into further stereotyping– though it’s hard to say, given that I’m not familiar with most of the people she portrays), she does so in such an empathetic way that the audience is made to be intimately familiar with the undeniable humanity of these people.
I wrote in my notes on Twilight that “none of the people [she portrayed] feel caricatured,” and that, while watching, I’d “forget about her and just see the [people] she’s portraying.” In explaining how Anna Deveare Smith portrays people who fit certain stereotypes in such a positive way, I have found a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk “The Danger of a Single Story” particularly helpful. In her talk she claims that “the problem with stereotypes isn’t necessarily that they’re untrue, but that they’re incomplete.” Stereotypes are two-dimensional, and because of this two-dimensional, unfinished quality, they’re also dehumanizing. They also often possess a distorting quality, changing how one views others who appear to fit within those stereotypes. Smith’s portrayals, however, are nuanced and deep and unmistakably human. These nuances and the empathy with which she undertakes her performances complete thwarts the distancing and dehumanizing abilities of stereotypes.