Playwright Anna Deavere Smith and opera director Yuval Sharon explore how this extraordinary moment in our history will both influence their work as artists and compel all of us to reinterpret art from the past. While social change has emboldened artistic expression throughout history, evident in ancient Greek plays and centuries-old Shakespearian dramas, artistic expression has always strived to enliven culture and move minds in the moment. Sharon and Deavere Smith illustrate how artistic endeavor — regardless of provenance — continues to be reinvented against the landscape of the here and now.
Opera director Yuval Sharon says that opera, despite being considered one of the more archaic mediums of art, can be a powerful example of artists adapting and changing along with the world. He and his team are constantly seeking to “explore how opera, which seems like the ultimate colonialist art form, can be a vehicle for trying to unpack notions of colonialism and a colonialist view of history.” This includes emphasizing and returning to the original intent of Greek operas, which were meant to bring people together.
Actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith’s work looks at current events from multiple points of view. She works to highlight the stories of people who are marginalized and pushed out of dominating narratives. To do this, she focuses on an “unofficial language” — listening to those who have no power or social capital and telling their stories.
Big IdeaI think of the language of politicians and intellectuals as a kind of haute couture of language — very considered, long sentences. I’m interested in the people who can’t get through a sentence...There’s breath there, there are feelings there, it’s the place where people have no words.Anna Deavere Smith
Deveare Smith says too often politicians and intellectuals respond to cultural moments as quickly as possible so they can act as pundits. They share their views with a lack of nuance “in order to appear on television and sell books.” Deveare Smith prefers to speak to the people still on the ground after the cameras have left. She wants to understand the emotional truth of the situation.
Both Sharon and Deveare Smith offer their perspectives on the growing call for Confederate statues and monuments to be taken down — an issue highlighted by protesters and city governments alike. Yuval sees a connection between the monuments being taken down and the change he sees as essential to opera as an art form.
Big Idea"It’s important we don’t have knee-jerk responses to these classic works and say 'Well this is how it’s always been done and we’re not going to question it.’ I don't want to see these old works necessarily as statues that need to be toppled, but as challenges for us to try and find a new expression for these pieces and find a new vessel for the humanity in them to be experienced. There is something about being able to come into conversation with those old ideas and old prejudices that I think gives opera possibility moving forward."Yuval Sharon
Deveare Smith makes a striking connection between removing confederate statues and #MeToo movement, which aims to expose and erase sexual harassment and assault. "Tearing down the monuments is a little bit like bringing down Harvey Weinstein. It’s a necessary thing to do to open up metaphorically all those roaches that are hiding until you turn on the lights in all of our institutions where [people are abused]."