Last week playwright-actress-professor Anna Deavere Smith learned that she had won the Lillian Gish Prize, which is awarded “to a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” The New York Times’ announcement says Smith “burst onto the theater scene in the 1990’s with one-woman shows like ‘Fires in the Mirror’ (about the 1991 riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn) and ‘Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992’ (about violence in that city after the acquittal of police officers in connection with the beating of Rodney King)…” She is credited with creating a “new art form.” After in-depth research and interviews with numerous individuals, who all have their own version of experience to share, she miraculously transforms herself on stage into all of them! I think it’s something like taking pieces of mismatched thread and turning them into tapestry.
A little bit before all this, in 1988, Anna starred in my UCLA Graduate Thesis Film, “Out of the Rain,” playing a desperately lonely woman who walks into a crisis counseling center on a rainy night seeking help. The story was based on an experience I had working as a volunteer counselor in Portland, Oregon. Anna’s performance was so real and so moving that two years later, when I was in Ireland at the Cork International Film Festival with another film, people still remembered Anna in “Out of the Rain.”
The “Out of the Rain” story is included in my Two in the Middle manuscript in a chapter titled “Warming the Heart vs. Guarding the Heart.” The incident that inspired the story has served as a personal reminder of how even the smallest act of kindness can make a huge difference in a person’s life.
After graduating from college, where I had discovered my love of film, I worked in various fields hoping that I would find a more practical career than filmmaking to ignite my passion. Besides, I had to earn a living. Once a week, after work, I volunteered at a walk-in crisis clinic, thinking that social work might be a possible option.
One rainy night, just before closing, a disheveled woman came to the door in a desperate state. As she entered the front room of the old house that had been converted into offices and the counseling center, she told me between sobs that she wanted to kill herself. I took her wet coat and hung it up to dry, and then sat her down in a chair next to a heating vent, the coziest place in the room. I listened as she told me about a life, and most recently a series of days, filled with disappointments. Now that it was Friday, all she faced was a lonely weekend in her studio apartment. The more we talked, it really did seem like nothing was going to help. I finally asked her if she thought she needed to be admitted to a hospital for the weekend, just to get her through this difficult time. She vehemently rejected this as a bad idea.
By then, more than an hour had gone by. Exhausted and almost at my wits end, which I was afraid was beginning to show, I kept thinking about going home and drinking a cup of tea. I felt ashamed at this thought. A cup of tea, for heaven’s sake! And then before I could think twice, I was pulling teabags out of the special pocket in my purse and handing one to the woman who sat next to me, whose face not so much earlier had been that of a stranger’s but now was one I knew intimately.
I heard my voice, as if confiding a secret, say, “When I get home, I’m going to have a cup of tea. I was wondering if you might want to have one when you get home, too.”
What was I thinking?
But she accepted the teabag and looked up at me with the first tentative smile I had seen on her face.
“We could set a time and think about each other,” I suggested.
I couldn’t believe these words were coming out of my mouth, but they were and I was immensely relieved that nothing terrible had happened. At least so far.
She said with disbelief, “You would think about me?”
“I would,” I promised.
“We could set a time?”
I nodded and looked at my watch.
“It’s seven o’clock now. What if we drink our tea at eight-thirty?”
She nodded as she unzipped her purse and tucked the teabag deep inside. Then, before I could say anything else, she stood up. “I’ll drink my tea and think about you.” Before I knew it she had reached for her coat, and was out the door, leaving behind a stunned me.
I wish you could see the way Anna Deavere Smith performed the scene in “Out of the Rain.” It is just one small example of how she has contributed to mankind’s “understanding of life.”