Power Steering

Anna Deavere Smith in House Arrest: setting dangerous presidents
photo: Mark Douet

Maybe theater proliferates here because New York's attention is always so easily diverted: The two most dramatic events of the week were a new piece by Anna Deavere Smith and Patrick Dorismond's funeral—not necessarily in that order—but everyone I run into only wants to know what I thought of Aida. Not that Aida isn't relevant: The issues it trivializes are the same ones Deavere Smith deals with, discursively, in House Arrest. And they were fiercely present when people's grief and anger over the fourth unarmed black man shot down by the NYPD in a year met the nightsticks of Rudy's helmeted legions. House Arrest roams through a great many matters that have nothing to do with race relations in millennial New York, surfing through American history like a giant Web, declining to settle on any central topic, and even straying far from its ornate, carefully noncommittal subtitle: A Search for American Character In and Around the White House, Past and Present. But the national misery that produced the funeral, its grieving crowds flanked by riot police on one side and bottle throwers on the other, is never far from Smith's awareness. What did a '60s civil-rights leader call violence? "As American as cherry pie." Just add racism, or a fascist asshole who wants to be senator, and stir.

Blacks and women are Deavere Smith's focal figures, though not always openly. More fascinated by an interviewee's peripheral behavior and what it reveals than by the substance of the interview, she doesn't always forge the links to guide an audience through her digressive, data-crammed event. It takes time, not available while you're watching and listening, to formulate the connection between Jefferson's shifting views of slavery (plus the DNA analysis of Sally Hemings's descendants) and White House cook Lizzie McDuffie's devotion to FDR, or the ex-slave Lizzie Keckley's pride at being Mary Todd Lincoln's favored dressmaker. The material's hard to process because so many purposes are at work. A prologue in which the aged Studs Terkel, jauntily thumping his cane, talks about how all Americans have been degraded into clownishness, seems to set the evening's theme as "moral slippage," but Smith displays little evidence of higher moral standards in the past. We see the problematic Jefferson being slandered by the loathsome James Callender, but the slander's probable truth doesn't make us feel any better about it—especially since it's followed by a geneticist's pointing out that DNA can't prove that Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children, only that it's "extremely likely" he did so.

With the nature of Sally Hemings's life as Jefferson's chattel still undefined—"extremely likely" is all we're ever likely to know—we jump to the affection FDR inspired, and the press corps' discretion about his relations with his secretary, Missy leHand. And then it's time for Lincoln's assassination, intercut with Walt Whitman's ruminations on him, excerpts from Our American Cousin, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee's views of celebrity consciousness, and the reflections of a modern-day White House press photographer who defines his job as making sure his organization has coverage "in case POTUS [President of the U.S.] gets waxed. . . . " Circular and allusive, closer to symphonic development than drama, the themes of House Arrest crisscross one another: celebrity and power; celebrity and hatred; hatred and race; race, gender, and power; race and class; power and corruption. In its constant shifting of ground, the piece gives off occasional hints of desperation. No director's credited (Jo Bonney is billed as "directorial consultant"), but the evening uses more elaborate production elements than both of Deavere Smith's previous solo events combined: drapes, furniture,slides, sound tapes, shadows, architectural elements. As compared to the tight focus and repose of even the jumpiest moments in Twilight: L.A., the barrage seems blurry; so, for once, does Deavere Smith's acting, which, particularly in the historical documents, tends to lapse into a generality surprising in an artist whose principal gift is her scrupulousness of detail.

That gift is seen at its best, as House Arrest moves on toward Clinton and Monicagate, in two sequences. The first intercuts comments by three intelligent women who've been put through right-wing Washington's inquisitorial grinder: Mrs. Clinton's former chief of staff Maggie Williams, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, and Anita Hill. Inside their dignity and composure, Deavere Smith catches, with wonderful precision, their differently distraught responses to the white male thuggishness that has now become the basic behavioral trait of American politics, as it has of American religion. The thuggishness brings a more deeply tragic reaction, near the evening's end, when a woman prisoner in a Maryland jail describes for Deavere Smith how she sat by in silent terror while her abusive mate murdered her daughter by a previous marriage.

The hint of tabloid sensationalism in this story is rendered irrelevant by the absolute, unaffected directness with which Deavere Smith speaks it, and by its seeming to be, unnervingly, the climax of all these digressive, anecdotal flashes of presidents at their best and worst. Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and Clinton have nothing to do with an impoverished woman who has been mute in the face of murderous brutality. They didn't cause her condition, and they couldn't cure it. Yet the connection sits there, waiting to be made, and what Deavere Smith says about each president makes some part of it. That everything we do is connected, that America is a set of connections at which we have trained ourselves not to look, may well be the point, though an artist might find a less fragmented means than House Arrest to say so.

It's noteworthy that, in the show's welter of details, we hear very little of the "who whom," as Marx would have called it, of money and power. One of the few clues in that vein is given by Deavere Smith's ultimate interview subject, William Jefferson Clinton himself, quoting an unnamed Republican senator who tells him, "[The press] vote like you but they think like us. . . . You want to use the power of government to improve people's lives. . . . We like it because we have the power." Whatever that may say about the press, it's the clearest exposition of why Rudy Giuliani must not, under any circumstances, ever hold an elective office again. For all the grievous shortcomings of the Clintons, the insane criminality of their opponents—check out Anthony Lewis's essay in the current New York Review of Books—makes them look statesmanlike and heroic by comparison, much as Rudy's viciousness has conferred dignity and stature on Al Sharpton. What can one say about a mayor with so little respect for the law that, in the face of murder, he flippantly waves around sealed court records? For starters, shouldn't he be disbarred?

And what should be done about the perpetrators of Aida? You can't very well disbar people from writing for Broadway just because they have no idea what they're doing. With a little thought added—Elton John seems barely able to think beyond four notes—it might have struck a vein of truth. They begin as far away from Verdi as possible, with Radames, on an expedition, kidnapping Aida into slavery and then falling in love with her. (Somebody's been listening to Meyerbeer's L'Africaine instead.) Then the plot gets doubly convoluted: Radames's father is slowly poisoning the Pharaoh, so Radames can marry Pharaoh's daughter Amneris and get on the throne. But Pharaoh already wants this to happen; the poison's pointless. Aida wants Radames to free the Nubian slaves, but he can't if he doesn't marry Amneris. A saner mind would have thrown the extra junk out and followed Verdi scene for scene; a wit would have given the spoof its ultimate twist: Radames lets Pharaoh die, marries Amneris, and uses the throne to advance his own liberal program. But a Disney musical can't spoof murder and marriage, no way. So instead we get a dreary mishmash, with lyrics and music alike petering out after a few vaguely interesting phrases, huge globs of scenery that alternate the elegantly imaginative with the Las Vegas hideous, and acres of costumes, which must be pretty heavy under that blazing Egyptian sun. Amneris, the ultimate Nile Valley girl, gets to wear a lampshade on her head.

The Nubian slaves are the only peasantry we see; the word fellahin is apparently not in Disney's vocabulary. Though the story ought to focus on Aida, their would-be liberator, and her conflicted loyalties, it keeps jumping back to Radames's daddy problem or Amneris's Radames problem. Heather Headley, burning-eyed and fiery-voiced, does everything she can, but an actress can't refocus a mangled plot structure by main force, and Sherie Rene Scott's Amneris, who's her equal in beauty and vocal flair, has the fashion advantage. But it's hardly worth talking about a piece that hasn't been written or even thought through. The annoying part is that everyone involved clearly meant to do something serious; they just didn't know how.

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