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Real-Life Multiple Viewpoint Drama

Drama professor Anna Deavere Smith created a form of multiple-viewpoint docudrama which she used to delve into the psycho-social dynamics which produce riots. "Fires in the Mirror" which I saw first in 1995, is a one woman show - a many-character monologue - about the violent conflict between African Americans and Hassidic Jews in Crown Heights, New York.

To prepare for her performance, Smith went to Crown Heights and interviewed a wide range of participants -- from well-known figures to nearly anonymous bystanders. Then she carefully selected several minutes from each interview and thoroughly memorized that moment -- not just the words, but the voice, mannerisms, and look of each person speaking. She performs each of these fiercely diverse voices, one after the other. She dresses up like each character and speaks that actual person's words with their passion and perspective, for two minutes, or eight. The light fades and then, after a pause, a new character appears (Smith, again) to tell us another way of looking at what happened. By the finale the audience has gained deep insights, not only into the individual stories of these real-life characters, but into the collective story they unintentionally wove into a dramatic collective fabric. "There is no one answer, no one viewpoint or conclusion, that can hold all this complex reality," Smith seems to be saying. "Let go of your own perspective for a while and let the full story sink in. Enter into the collective mind that made this thing happen."

When I first saw a video of this performance, what seemed most compelling to me was not so much the interaction between these viewpoints as the solidity of the viewpoints themselves, the amount of sense they each made within their own frame of reference, and their mutual incompatibility which remained, like an echo or an odor, as her multiple-viewpoint monologue ended.

I thought to myself: This solidity of viewpoints is what leads to these profound human tragedies. To the extent we live out our stories in isolation and mutual misunderstanding, we will create collective stories of mutual destruction, almost whether we want to or not. To the extent we can step outside our insular stories to realize the intrinsic logic of everyone's stories, we may become able to co-create collective stories more consciously, ones that are at least tolerable, perhaps even mutually beneficial or even joyful.

Creating, performing, and viewing real-life multiple viewpoint drama like this is, I believe, a new form of journalism that has profound gifts to offer us as we pursue a wiser exercise of democracy.

A detailed description of "Fires in the Mirror" can be found here on Wikipedia.

Video of the PBS broadcast performance of "Fires in the Mirror" is available here.

Smith also did a similar drama "Twilight Los Angeles 1992" about the riots triggered by the police trial and verdict about the videotaped beating of Rodney King.

A related form of drama that could be adapted for similar multiple viewpoint journalistic purposes is playback theater.

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