In her TED Talk, Smith performed excerpts from her solo show “On the Road: A Search for American Character." She presented four different characters – author Studs Turkel, convict Paulette Jenkins, a Korean shopkeeper, and a seasoned Utah bull rider. All had a rawness and lively spirit to them that embodied what Smith calls the “American Character.” These four individuals spoke of death, destruction, toughness, and human connection.
At the beginning of the TED Talk, Smith explained that she explores issues of American identity and community by “walking in the words” of her interview subjects, a reason why she normally performs barefoot. Race, class, education, wealth – all of these are important, and all of these differ in each character. But all are mere facets of the larger themes she tackles in her roles.
I saw this most clearly in her performance of Studs Turkel. Turkel was an author, historian, actor, and broadcaster. He’s remembered especially for his oral histories of everyday Americans. His 1985 book “The Good War: An Oral History of World War II” detailed ordinary peoples' accounts of the country's involvement in war and later won the Pulitzer Prize. Much of Turkel’s critical acclaim stemmed from his belief that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. Apparently, Smith believed this of him as well.
The monologue begins as a lighthearted comedy. Smith throws on oversized blue blazer and explains that when she interviewed Studs Turkel, she asked him to name a defining moment in American history. As she prepares to answer, Smith wrinkles her brow and grimaces a little, like a giant cigar is protruding from her clenched teeth. She disappears, and Turkel suddenly launches into ranting about the “moral slippage” that has come with the technological age. He sputters and rambles, waving his arms at the idea of humans imitating robots on the overhead of trains. It’s the comical, age-old complaint of the grandparent generation, the one that always starts with “Back in my day…”
The energy exuding from Smith’s impersonation is riveting. On a tiny stage in front of hundreds of people, her short, loud words of Turkel punch like the blares of a trumpet. She describes – as Turkel – a young couple running onto this “modernized” train at the last minute, delaying its departure and annoying the other passengers. Without breaking the ragtime-American accent, Smith's Turkel explains that with the help of a few drinks and a disappointment in the other passengers, he imitates the robotic train call by saying “George Orwell, your time has come!”
A few people in the audience are laughing, but as Turkel points out with a chuckle, “no one was laughing on this train.”
Turkel then spots a young woman on the train holding her baby. “I know it’s Hispanic,” he blurts, “’cause she’s speakin’ Spanish to her companion.” The audience laughs. It’s another comical moment where Smith masters the blunt mannerisms of Turkel. Turkel decides to talk to the baby, holding his hand over his mouth because, as he points out, “my breath must be 100 proof.” More laughs from the audience. The monologue is back to its comical lightheartedness.
“Sir, or Madam,” Turkel asks the baby with a hearty laugh, “what is your considered opinion of the human species?” He explains that the baby smiles and laughs back. “And I said ‘Thank God, we have a human reaction! We haven’t lost yet!”
That last line made me stop laughing immediately. I wasn’t amused anymore. I was worried. And disappointed. And a little depressed. Turkel continues to talk about the “loss of the human touch” and how we as a society care “less and less about the pain of the individual.” There are a few moments where the audience chuckles again, but I can’t find it in me to laugh anymore. Is this really where we are in this country: glaring down the person who delays our train from departing by 30 seconds? Turkel seemed to believe so, and perhaps Smith did too. Why else would she choose to impersonate him in her show?
One particular line from the end of the Studs Turkel monologue really resonated with me: “We’re more and more into communications and less and less into communication.” I think I liked this line so much because of how Smith presented it. With so little costume and props, she made me feel a variety of such strong emotions. Clearly, when it comes to theatre, it's not about what you pad the performance with, but the performance itself. I want to keep this in mind as I watch the boys in Ars Gratia Artis again. How are they performing? Are they making me feel? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will be clear at my next visit.
- Carolyn Grace