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
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
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
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