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Anna Deavere Smith has been on a search for the character of America for the better part of her adult life. As a child, she says, "I experienced America as 'over there,' even as I sang all the proper songs and anthems."
Born in the United States, Ms. Smith, who may be most widely known for her role as the national security adviser on NBC's "The West Wing," says she always felt that some other America, or the real America, was hidden from her.
"I had the feeling that there was another America that I was not a part of. By that," says the actress, "I mean, white, mainstream America. Car rides across my native city of Baltimore often showed me a more comfortable America than the one I experienced every day."
Like all children who came of age in the civil-rights era, Smith says, her view of the country was shaped by television. "Television, of course, made white America look like a lot more fun than my America."
In many respects, the career path this performer has chosen is built on that ability to view her country from the perspective of an outsider looking in.
She has created numerous solo acts that illuminate important moments in our civil life, weaving social commentary, journalism, and character acting into singular performance pieces that have defied pat description.
"Twilight: Los Angeles," airing on PBS Sunday (check local listings), was first performed in the city it describes. It attempts to put the civil disturbances that followed the Rodney King verdict in 1992 into a larger context.
"The acting that I do is not in pursuit of fantasy," Smith says. "It is in pursuit of another reality. From acting, I understand that I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I walk in their words.
"My grandfather told me, if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. That is the basis of my acting technique, my theater, my attempt at social bridge-building."
When the Los Angeles riot swept the city, Smith says she felt it was "a perfect place to do my work. I had grown up in black and white, in segregation. This city offered technicolor." Smith interviewed 288 people about the riots and created a play that was first performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
"The chorus of 288 people was fascinating," Smith says. "Perhaps one of the most fascinating people that I met here was a [Korean] woman who was so very different from me," she recalls. It took an emotional leap to bridge the gap between herself and the Korean woman in trying to perform her.
During the riots, many Korean businesses were targeted by black rioters. Smith says this Korean woman, whose liquor store was burned to the ground, "finds herself perplexed about why blacks were dancing in the streets, and she wonders where justice really lives in America."
Smith says that even though these events took place nearly a decade ago, the question is relevant today: "Where does justice stand in our country?"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor