No one is disputing that Anna Deavere Smith is practically a national treasure. Her previous forays onto the stage, “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities” and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” made audiences sit up and listen to a host of communal concerns in shows that were as much distinguished by Smith’s unique talents as a monologist as by the social issues she sought to illuminate. But that focus and Smith’s incredible talent for mimicry are largely absent from her latest effort, “House Arrest: An Introgression.”
Smith’s show (which was poorly received at Washington’s Arena Stage in late 1997) is billed as a work in progress, and turns out to be just that. It remains unclear whether Smith, both writer and director of this overstuffed potpourri, is capable of turning her work into something even moderately coherent, which the present production certainly isn’t.
The pompous subtitle aside –“introgression” refers to the introduction of genes from one species into the gene pool of another — “House Arrest” brims with ostensibly comprehensible ideas that are in fact abstruse and slippery in this context — which may, of course, be Smith’s point. Nevertheless, there’s nothing original about meditations on race relations in this country and the changing nature of American leadership. Yet Smith, who has plenty to say about these issues, just can’t make sense of them.
Part of the problem is structural. In her previous shows, Smith stood alone on a nearly bare stage and impersonated a host of real people whom she’d interviewed, a simple concept that worked marvelously well. Here, Smith barely utilizes her trademark concept (though her stint as Studs Terkel at the beginning and end of the show is well turned and most welcome).
Instead, a cast of 12 cavort and amble across the stage. Sometimes they sing, sometimes they speak, sometimes they dance, but never do they provide more than fleeting moments of interest. Smith’s script is by turns earnest, profane, funny, ironic and mystifying.
What, for instance, does a mother’s grief at allowing her husband to beat their daughter to death have to do with Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings? And why contrast the Lincoln-Douglas debates with comments by Michel Foucault? Yet on the rare occasions when connections are clear, their banality undermines them. Do we really need to see the Zapruder film unspool on large screens as Lincoln’s assassination is being reenacted on the stage?
Smith and her cast are eager performers, but no amount of show-must-go-on enthusiasm can make up for this production’s discursiveness. At a post-performance discussion, which Smith bills as this show’s “Act II,” audiences members seemed at pains to understand just what “House Arrest” hoped to convey. Given her own vague comments, Smith herself may not know.