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Ms. Smith Goes to Washington : Anna Deavere Smith is working on two projects about the presidency: Rob Reiner’s upcoming film ‘American President’ and her own theater piece that also looks at media.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An interview with Anna Deavere Smith at Beverly Hills’ Peninsula Hotel two weeks ago was somewhat delayed by rain--or, more accurately, mud. Smith herself was not the victim of that byproduct of Los Angeles’ recent destructive rains--but was in town to play the role of the President’s press secretary in Rob Reiner’s upcoming “American President,” which stars Michael Douglas as the President, Annette Bening as his girlfriend, and Michael J. Fox and Martin Sheen as key White House staffers.

Malibu resident Sheen was socked in by mudslides--and, although he eventually made it to the set, it put Smith’s day just slightly off schedule.

It seems fitting that Smith should return to Los Angeles during one of the city’s all-too-frequent disasters. In 1993, Smith’s one-woman play about the Los Angeles riots, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” premiered at the Mark Taper Forum, just about a year after the actual event.

The work--in which Smith portrayed 23 real-life individuals, male and female, famous and anonymous, black, white, Asian and Latino--led Smith to interview near-legendary figures from the riots--Rodney G. King, Daryl Gates, Reginald O. Denny--as well as lower-profile players such as beleaguered immigrant shopkeepers, defiant participants, jurors and innocent bystanders touched by the riots’ physical and psychological violence. The text of those interviews became the text of the play.

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An expanded 46-character version, “Twilight” went on to New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theatre and then to Broadway, netting two 1994 Tony Awards nominations along the way. Reflecting on her months here doing research after the riots, Smith, 44, a member of Stanford University’s theater faculty, said the experience can never be duplicated. “When I came to Los Angeles, it was in the middle of this cry that your city was in; I came here to hear that cry in all its aspects,” remembered Smith. “And when I came onstage, you in Los Angeles were still crying. So you and I were in a duet.

“People were still suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome; people would say (“Twilight”) brought it all back like it was yesterday. . . . You were still trying to work out what happened, and it wasn’t over. I was in rehearsal when the second verdicts were being read.”

And, added Smith, “We did (“Twilight”) in less than a year. If we had waited, you would have had Heidi Fleiss, you would have the earthquake, the fires--so it was really good that we keep pushing ahead to make a deadline.”

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Despite glowing reviews in New York--as well as earning mainstream theater’s Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval with its Tony nominations--"Twilight” was disallowed for final consideration by 1994’s Pulitzer Prize committee in drama on the grounds that its words were not original, but gleaned from interviews. This even though an earlier Smith piece, “Fires in the Mirror,” which used the same technique to explore race riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, was a runner-up for the previous year’s Pulitzer Prize. Saturday, Smith will give one performance, a West Coast premiere, of “Fires” at Escondido’s California Center for the Arts.

Both “Fires” and “Twilight” have sparked an ongoing debate over whether Smith’s creations are “plays,” or instead some odd, and somehow lesser, hybrid of journalism and performance art.She remains unconcerned about whether her works fit some traditional definition of a play.

“I wanted not just to be part of the theater tradition ,” said Smith. “I felt that the theater tradition in this country was too behind the times. I think that art is supposed to be ahead of the times.

“I knew that I could not rely on my theater colleagues to get me with the times, so I knew I was going to have to find a way to use art to put myself among the American people, in order to discover something about the American character,” Smith continued. “That’s why I’d go out and interview people instead of making up things in my head; there’s a trap that every play that I did would have my voice, and not an American voice.”

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Smith is currently at work on a new, as-yet-untitled theater piece that will explore the relationship between the press and the presidency, for Arena Stage in Washington. Unlike “Twilight,” which was rushed into production, she will spend two years on the project. Smith is pleased that the research she did for her role in “American President” overlaps her studies for the new work.

As befits one who calls herself an “experimentalist,’ Smith recently did a stage piece with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, in which she moved among the dancers providing narration during a performance of artistic director Judith Jamison’s “Hymn"--to decidedly mixed reviews. “Hymn” will be performed during the Ailey company’s Feb. 17-26 engagement at the Wiltern Theatre, sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts; it remains undecided whether Smith will appear live during some performances, or her taped words will be used. The work will also be seen at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts during a March 3-5 engagement.

Smith is also expanding her horizons by writing a screenplay for Columbia Pictures, with the self-explanatory title “Sequestered Jury.” It has nothing to do with any particular case currently or recently in the headlines, she said. And “Hoop Dreams” documentarians Peter Gilbert, Frederick Marx and Steve James have plans to produce one of Smith’s “Twilight” performances as a film; a similar project was done with “Fires” for PBS.

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Smith said she is not sure whether her new theater piece will take the same form as “Fires” or “Twilight"--it may not use verbatim interviews, and she may or may not perform in it. “The sky’s the limit!” she said.

Still, her initial approach will be the same--to take her tape recorder to Capitol Hill. “I wish I was there right now, obviously. Here is Hillary Clinton, right here on the front page of the New York Times yesterday, saying she wants to rethink her image,” Smith said.

“It’s curious about me and the press, because the first thing written about me and about ‘Fires in the Mirror’ wasn’t written by a theater critic. . . . I always thought that was good, that the first thing written was not theater criticism, it was a story about ‘Fires in the Mirror’ as a kind of journalism,” Smith said. “It wasn’t my goal to be that. But it was a good feeling that perhaps there is a way for me to have a different kind of relationship with the press than the relationship that the artist normally has.”

Whether her work ultimately is labeled theater or journalism, Smith said, is a question best left to historians. Still, she believes providing an impetus for such discussion could play a vital role in saving American theater.

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“For me, (theater) is a very limited world,” Smith said. “I have to be very careful what I say now, because the (financial) situation we find ourselves in now in the arts is just unbelievable--but we frequently find ourselves in a position where we can be eliminated because we are seen to be cut off from the rest of the world.

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“Maybe there is something more strategic to what I’m doing than I realize,” Smith mused. “It has always been my nature never to be trapped in any ghetto, and when I saw through my training as an artist that (theater) could be a ghetto, I immediately started to move away and to find allies elsewhere.

“In the theaters in this country today, if you took a poll, most plays that are being done were written at least 20 years ago, or even several hundred years ago. Not that many people, even contemporary writers, write about right now.

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* Smith will perform “Fires in the Mirror” Saturday at 8 p.m. at California Arts Center, 340 N. Escondido Blvd, Escondido, (619) 738-4100. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Feb. 17-26 at the Wiltern Theatre, 3790 Wilshire Blvd., (310) 825-2101 or (213) 365-3500, and March 3-5 at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, (310) 916-8500 or (800) 300-4345.


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