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Theater

A Welcome Change

10.14.16

Anna Deveare Smith addresses the audience in Sanders Theater on October 5. The event was the 2016 Rita E. Hauser Forum for the Arts, a series sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard.

Photograph by Tia Chapman/Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard


Anna Deveare Smith addresses the audience in Sanders Theater on October 5. The event was the 2016 Rita E. Hauser Forum for the Arts, a series sponsored by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard.

Photograph by Tia Chapman/Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard

Last week, a brimming crowd of grayed, bespectacled, and Tyvek-ed Cantabrigians, dotted throughout with important figures from the Harvard administration and faculty, packed into Sanders Theatre to hear actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Smith, whose long relationship with Harvard includes a Bunting Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a Radcliffe Medal, was just coming off of a run of an original play, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, at the American Repertory Theatre. Leading up to the event, I was somewhat puzzled by the host Mahindra Humanities Center’s posters strewn about campus, advertising the event as “A Lecture/Performance.” Was this a nonsensical distinction? Aren’t all lectures, in their own way, performances? Was adding the word “performance” an off-putting insistence, a bit high-minded bombast?

But what unfolded in the ensuing hour could hardly be described any other way—except, perhaps, as one-woman-show. Smith delivered an oracular vision of her subject (“Radical Hospitality”), mostly through narrative set pieces that included acted scenes, some with multiple characters. 

Smith let those characters, all nonfictional and studied closely, do most of the heavy lifting, narrating in her own voice between scenes only to transition, orient, and drive home points. There was Brother Aaron, a handsome, bearded, Birkenstock-sporting Benedictine at a monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, who worried that life oppresses people who have no patience for themselves or others. An anonymous Orthodox Jewish woman who needed to ask a young black boy on her block to turn off her stereo when it accidentally clicked on during Shabbos. (Throughout, Deavere Smith’s exasperated New York Jewish tawk drew huge laughs from the crowd.) A spectacular, lengthy reenactment of a taped conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, both parts played fiercely, circling around the idea of home and exile. Finally, civil-rights leader and congressman John R. Lewis recounting how the current Selma police chief offered him a badge to apologize for the terror of Selma all those years prior, as well as another incident in which a former Klansman, who had beaten Lewis in South Carolina, sought him out to ask for forgiveness. By the end of the last scene, sniffs and muffled nose blows sounded around the auditorium.

All of the scenes spoke to Smith’s notion of Radical Hospitality, which was only loosely defined, to the point of being difficult to pin down. At different times, she presented it as the virtue of patience, laboring to empathize with others, and giving the exiled a home, just to name a few. Radical Hospitality, in its elasticity, ran the risk of not seeming radical at all, and just becoming a stand-in for the warm nicety du jour. But there seemed to be a stable core that held it together: people around the world ought to do a better job of treating each other as welcomed guests. Like the maxim “Love thy neighbor,” the principle is apparent, simple, and unsurprising—but to insist on its importance, and to hold oneself and others to its standards, is radical.

A lot of what seemed novel about Smith’s concept was in language: the focus on the very word hospitality, and the attempt to trace its political import. We are familiar to the point of callousing with the idea that we should love strangers or that we should empathize with others, but we rarely hear that we should be more hospitable. The word feels new in our mouths. Focusing on hospitality reinvigorates the vitality of a word that’s retreated to the hotel and dining room. And these common associations strengthen Smith’s political usage, rendering otherwise abstract debates in terms of warm, ground-level personal relations. Offering amnesty to refugees, for example, can be thought of as a matter of hospitality; should we not feel the same careful responsibility to those around the world that we do to those in our homes? The idea suggests that there is an ethics to our etiquette and an etiquette to our ethics.

In the hands of a less skilled speaker, this could all seem like banal moralizing. But Smith was keen and careful. She insisted that hospitality is not a “cuddly wuddly” idea. Rather, she argued, it is has urgent sociopolitical import in many thorny situations that surround us. It bears mentioning that this artistic meditation on the politics of hospitality, introduced by President Drew Faust and bringing together an audience that included various campus dignitaries, convened on the first day of the Harvard University Dining Services work strike. Around campus, the people who labor to make Harvard feel like homelike to students, who work in a field often referred to as “hospitality,” are fighting to be included in working conditions commensurate with those enjoyed by other members of the Harvard community. College rhetoric supporting the strike, citing how HUDS workers help to “build and fortify the community and offer support to students,” has centered on ideas that sound like Radical Hospitality. The unintended, potentially ironic, resonance with goings-on outside the auditorium should make a convincing case for this event’s relevance.

Remarkably, Smith’s performance offered a form of Radical Hospitality in and of itself. In her incisive character study, Smith presented a kind of capaciousness of self that demonstrated a willingness to welcome and internalize other viewpoints. Radical Hospitality was both practice and preaching, as it were. Her lecture was even able to warmly welcome one of the headiest of sources, Immanuel Kant, whom she quoted: “Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as a stranger.” Perhaps the best summary of the performance came from MHC director and Rothenberg professor of the humanities Homi Bhabha, who noted to the crowd afterward, “Kant has never sounded so good or so sexy.”

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