Count Anna Deavere Smith among the fans of Dave Chappelle’s freeform stand-up special, “8:46,” in which he discusses racial tensions and police violence with a raw, uncharacteristically serious, poignancy.
“I want to say, first of all, I was riveted by ‘8:46,’ in particular because [Chappelle] didn’t have any of — what I would call — the official language. We’ve heard a lot of that on television. That’s why we hear the same words over and over and over again,” Smith said Monday while serving as the featured guest on “92Y Confronts Hate,” a virtual conversation series put on by New York City’s 92nd Street Y in response to George Floyd’s death and the global protests against police violence.
Chappelle’s 27-minute show — which debuted last week on the “Netflix Is a Joke” YouTube channel — was filmed in early June at an outside, socially distanced Ohio venue and is titled “8:46” after the length of time police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. And though the special has limited laughter from the audience due to the serious subject matter, Smith says she felt injected with a sense of excitement while watching it.
“Here is Dave Chappelle, he’s pulling his pants legs up. He’s all over the place,” she explained. “He’s not saying words we’ve heard anybody else say. He’s not coming to any conclusions. I was very excited by it.”
As a playwright and actor, Smith is a master at diving deep into the many voices of urban communities affected by violence. In the early 1990s, Smith crafted influential plays about racial inequality in America, conducting hundreds of interviews to create characters and ultimately writing and starring in “Fires in the Mirror” (about the Crown Heights riots in 1991) and “Twilight: Los Angeles” (about the Rodney King uprising in 1992).
Explaining why she feels the current protests are different from those she’s seen in the past, Smith points to the “worldwide vigor” of the demonstrators.
“I think it’s different because of the diversity of the crowd,” she explained. “But I think this feels like a real sea or an ocean of concern.”
“This is the moment of ‘enough’ — the graphicness of the murder of George Floyd, how long Derek Chauvin had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck,” she said.
After serving as a public awareness leader for several decades, Smith also agreed with Chappelle’s sentiment that these protests belong to the younger generation, but pledged that she is there to help.
“I’m with Chappelle. Let me know how I can be helpful,” Smith said. “I want to hear, and I want to struggle to understand, and I know I can only say the wrong thing.”
The 92Y conversation coincided with the fact that the Drama Desk Award-winning “Twilight: Los Angeles” is now available to stream on PBS’ Great Performances platform. The 2018 TV movie adaptation of Smith’s acclaimed play “Notes from the Field,” about the increased likelihood of children from disadvantaged communities to enter the criminal justice system, is also now streaming on HBO Max.