Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Master Class is the Greatest Half Hour of TV Ever
My HBOGo is kind of a waste, because I most use it to watch episodes of The Comeback that I have on DVD somewhere, but there is one reason I plan to keep it and keep it forever: it allows you to view, as many times as you want, for no additional cost, Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Master Class.
If you’ve never seen Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Master Class, get yourself to a streaming-friendly device right now. This 30-minute documentary has all the ambition of Fame with all the self-seriousness of a Yale drama first year, and it is inspiring and confusing and more than a little embarrassing and enthralling.
Anna Deavere Smith, who you might know as National Security Advisor Dr. Nancy McNally from The West Wing, is a playwright, actress, and professor. She’s also the winner of a couple of Drama Desk awards, the MacArthur genius grant, more honorary degrees than I wanted to count and the National Humanities Medal. Like, no big deal, but she’s a serious and important theater lady. She uses words like “the dramatis” and says that actors are “doctors of humanity.” Pretentious? Get out. This isn’t the YoungArts Beginners Class. Smith’s main medium is “documentary style theater” that deals with identity and language, meaning — to lay people like me and maybe you — that she does devastating impressions. It’s more than that but like… basically. To lay people. And thanks to the YoungArts foundation, she’s going to teach six teenagers to do the same.
Anna meets with each of the six teens and grills them about their personal histories. The kids are prepared for this, but I wasn’t. She asks about their families, their religion, their feelings on race in America. One girl (Jaz, our breakout star for sure) tells Anna that that she is tired of being typecast as the girl-next-door, and Anna narrows her eyes and looks hard at the young woman. “But you’re not the girl-next-door,” she says. This moment is genuinely thrilling. This is YA novel I would read. For a second, we’re all that girl, being seen by our hero. Moments later, the girl is screaming “GET OUT” in an imitation of own her alcoholic mother. If I wanted to start a cult, this exercise would be a major part of the initiation/ brainwashing ceremony.
Four minutes into Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Master Class, kids are weeping. They’re yelling, they’re dropping the fact that their great-great-great grandmother was raped by Pancho Villa, they’re talking about their sexuality and struggles, and they’re generally giving themselves over to Anna Deavere Smith. Also, like four out of six of them have J-names, so I am not entirely sure who is who.
In a talking head, Justice, a young gay man, admits that the experience was “overwhelming,” while Jaz says, “I knew she was going to try to break me down, she was going to try to make me feel things.” Why did she know that? WHAT IS THIS?
Like, look, I’m not a theater person. This is probably what theater people do. I don’t know. Maybe they share all their innermost feelings with famous strangers all the time, but when it gets really weird is when you learn that these intense icebreakers aren’t just to let Anna Deavere Smith get to know these kids.
After breaking these emotional actor babies down to weepy puddles of family history and soul deep truth, Anna Deavere Smith takes their recorded conversations and turns them into monologues. She pairs the kids and orders them to switch, learning one another’s tics and mannerisms, so that they can reveal their partner’s ultra-personal stories on stage the very next night.
YoungArts Master Class is a documentary, but it also has the makings of a seriously fucked up reality show. This is the best challenge RuPaul’s Drag Race has yet to do. A voice teacher insists that they are going to deliver their scenes exactly as written — ums and stutters and side eyes and all. This whole exercise seems like a nightmare, or at least every narcissist’s worst dream: they break down their speech patterns and movements and interior lives so that a stranger can embody them to their faces. Fun!
Joseph, a seriously handsome (ugh, sorry, he’s a teen, but it’s true) black kid is paired with Melody, who Anna Deavere Smith repeatedly reminds us is a “southern, beautiful white woman.” Melody’s conversation with Anna had something to do with her love of Jesus, but Joseph’s was about how he felt playing Trayvon Martin in a dramatic re-enactment. And Melody, who looks a young Laura Linney, is going to deliver his words. Are you cringing yet? Is your whole body cringing?
It’s a weird moment, Melody’s speech. Staying in character, she does the whole thing with a long blonde hair hanging in front of her face. And honestly? She kills it. Joseph watches her across the actor’s circle and he looks slightly ill, but Anna Deavere Smith loves it.
And this when the class gets seriously mastered. Anna Deavere Smith says to Melody, and to all of us, that our inability to put ourselves in one another person’s shoes is “a crisis in this country.” “As a southern, beautiful white woman, you get a chance to be inside of the fact that your classmate just doesn’t know what to think about [the Trayvon Martin verdict], or what to do about it.” Smith says, “And he’s given you a gift.”
Melody cries, very pretty mascara tears. “I thought it was accurate,” Joseph says of Melody’s performance, quietly.
Is acting the most important thing we have in the world? Do we all need to be turned into monologues and recited back to one another? Should Master Class be mandatory? I don’t know anymore. I’m crying like, a bunch. I just want Anna Deavere Smith to direct the rest of my life, and to be in charge of all human interaction.
Next up, Justice does Jaz, and things take a turn. Listening to her partner, Jaz realizes that she’s revealed more than she realized about her family, and the fact that these actors are actually not yet out of high school comes to head.
“I feel kind of violated.” Jaz says, with the most perfect hostile teenager inflection. Which, YES. Because YES, this whole thing seems like a huge violation.
But Anna Deavere Smith doesn’t want anyone to have a bad experience; there are simply lessons we have to learn. Smith tells Jaz, “I think you’ll be in public, and I want you to think about what you say.” Lessons, lessons. Then, they edit her piece together, because Anna Deavere Smith is a flawless teacher, and everything is better in the Master Class. Actors are “scientists of the human condition,” who “cry and desire for the world,” just like Anna Deavere Smith says. I never know what she is talking about but I want her to say it forever.
At the final rehearsal, Anna Deavere Smith gives her version of hip-hip-hooray, saying, “Giving doubt a try today? Well done! Giving the unknown a try today? Well done! Well done! Well done! Making decisions in the face of ignorance? Well done! Well done!” Rah rah! Go team!
Their final performances are only shown in a montage. “The fact that he would die for me?” Joseph says as Melody, while Justice rolls his eyes uncannily like Jaz. Melody swaggers across the stage (which doesn’t really seem like Joseph and does seem a little like Tracy Jordan but okay) and Jaz breaks down in Justice’s tears. It’s clear the whole enterprise is a rousing success
In a final talking head, Justice says, “I would do it all again and again and again.” Me too, Justice. Well done, kids. Well done. Well done.