The Unexpected Circumstances of Virtuosity

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Anna Deavere Smith's latest piece at the Broad Stage is a collaboration with the classical violinist Robert McDuffie titled Never Givin' Up.

Now, in simplest terms, the evening is an exploration of the struggle of Civil Rights in America dating back to Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." In more complex terms? It's a study in the unexpected circumstances of virtuosity.

Onstage, we're greeted by a simple wooden desk and chair. Around the desk is a short, maybe five inch tall, fence that's evocative in style and treatment of an old prison holding cell -- if those prison bars only came up to your ankles. Echoing this, stage left, is another fenced box with a simple chair. Upstage? A grand piano.

The evening begins with Robert McDuffie playing an excerpt from Philip Glass' Violin Concerto No. 2. Then Ms. Smith performs one of her "signature style" pieces, more on that in a moment, chronicling Charlayne Hunter-Gault's experience being the first African American woman to enroll at the University of Georgia. This alternating pattern of violin and voice provides both the rhythm and structure of the evening - and it's exceptional for the theater.

Perhaps the most ambitious part of the evening is the inclusion of Robert McDuffie in the first place. I grew up listening to Mr. McDuffie play at the Aspen Music Festival – which, oddly, is where this theater piece was created. You're more likely to see Mr. McDuffie as a featured soloist with the world's orchestras than accompanying a solo theater performance.

When Ms. Smith tackles "The Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and Mr. McDuffie underscores her performance with Arvo Part's Spiegel Im Spiegel, it's both utterly predictable and uniquely exceptional. Here is that staple of theater sound designers, a heart-breakingly beautiful piece of music that we've heard in theaters a hundred times . . . but it's being played live by one of the world's great violinists.

Now, whether this marriage between the two performers and two art forms is a success . . . I'll leave to you. What you can't deny is Ms. Smith's ambition and Mr. McDuffie's humble support.

The backbone of the piece, Dr. King's writing, falls strangely in Ms. Smith's repertoire. The monologues that surround it have the familiar quality of Ms. Smith inhabiting a person's voice through her own poetic editing of their vocal performance. But as she shares with the audience, there is no recording of Dr. King reading these historic words. This was, after all, a letter not a speech. Instead of embodying Dr. King, or said crudely mimicking his voice, Ms. Smith performs an imagined writing of the speech: scribbling, as we imagine Dr. King did, in the margins of a newspaper.

In juxtaposition to the rest of the evening, it lacks fluidity. The convention feels a bit awkward, forced. What you're left with is the virtuosity of Dr. King's words -- and that alone is worth the price of admission.

While the evening isn't Anna Deavere Smith at her best as a performer -- as a thinker there's no denying, Ms. Smith brings voices into the theater that desperately need to be heard.

Never Given' Up plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through this Sunday.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission

Photo: Getty Images