A Photograph of an Unfinished Work

Cellist Joshua Roman and the author. Photo: Diana Walker

This series of posts celebrates the 80th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art’s formal commitment to museum education. Anna Deavere Smith is an actress and playwright, and a member of the Museum’s Board of Trustees.

Not long ago I came upon this photograph of myself and concert cellist Joshua Roman. We were rehearsing for our collaborative performance piece On Grace. We worked on it three different times, in three different places: San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Chicago. The picture was taken by photojournalist Diana Walker.

I interviewed a wide variety of people, with a leading question: “What is grace?” The robust population of interviewees had nothing in common. Among them were a Stanford pre-med student who lost her entire family except for two sisters and a brother during the Rwandan genocide. She had been six years old when the genocide started. There was a bigger-than-life transsexual named Red. Red had started the journey of revising his gender identification as a child in the late 1940s, and had survived the earliest days of gay culture. There was a controversial Imam, a Buddhist monk, a Rabbi, an Episcopal priest, a former heavyweight champion of the world, the scholar Judith Butler (illuminating, as only she could, the book of Job), Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (in her direct, non-decorated way, giving an account of her life as a child on a ranch with the cowboys and her strict father), a famous chef talking about a hypothetical meal for Republicans and Democrats, and many more.

I turned interviews into monologues and performed them with Joshua. The project has been a journey to find grace in what seems to be a winner-take-all, increasingly violent world.

Joshua and I started the process while I was in residence at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, a grand Gothic cathedral, the only Episcopal cathedral in the west. Invited by the then Dean of the Cathedral, Jane Shaw, to explore the subject of grace, I wanted to use the opportunity to expand my process in new ways. It was time, I felt, to include another performer on stage with me, after years of performing solo. I chose the cello as the instrument with which to begin to populate my stage, having heard that the cello is like the human voice.

Our resulting work in San Francisco was full of moments; the most majestic without a doubt being the call to prayer sung by a local Imam, dressed in a dazzling white robe way up in a loft at the back of the cathedral. But had it come together?

The last time we worked together was at the University of Chicago, with a team that included a movement coach, a dialect coach, and a director, in the middle of a blizzard. Now I know why the University of Chicago has so many Nobel laureates. A blizzard is work inducing. You can’t move outside of your office. It was so cold outside it hurt to breathe. Two and a half weeks later, after working diligently in extraordinary surroundings — the brand new arts building — we performed a “work in progress” evening at Harris Hall.

A producer from New York came. “It’s not ready,” was her verdict. “It hasn’t come together yet.”

None of us were put off by the producer’s assessment. I had witnessed the full extent of my dialect coach’s talent for hearing distinct accents. “You are a genius, a real one,” I told her. She shrugged it off. My movement coach toasted me at a post-performance reception, saying, “We finally have a system. It’s a science now.”

Our perfectionist director headed out past the dressing rooms to the stage door with real excitement in his voice. “We are almost there.” He was off to direct an opera in… Australia? Houston? Spain? Could be anywhere. Michael, the movement coach, was either on his way to or just back from China, to teach or choreograph. Amy, the dialect coach, was headed back to New York to work on a play.

We are nomads. We come together and try to bring things together in brief, intense segments of time.

Joshua and I stood in the backstage hallway, the Chicago iteration of On Grace complete, he with his cello packed and over his shoulder — off to another gig, another city, another country. I was heading to Abu Dhabi.

We develop an expertise for creating environments where intimacy is possible. Intimacy is a form of grace. It is an awareness of the risks we must allow one another to take.

Joshua said simply, “When will I see you again?”

It’s the “again” that motivates me. An unfinished work is full of hope.

Joshua told me, “I would love to be able to create scenarios in my compositions where the path is basically laid out, but still allows for self discovery along the way.”

That discovery along the way is what makes process so fulfilling.

I thought about a John Cage interview. He said, “I love sounds just as they are. I don’t need them to be anything other than what they are.”

I love process just as it is.

I am looking at the picture of Joshua and me in rehearsal. I have no idea what is going on in the picture. Why are we both looking outward? I can’t remember.

I called Diana, the photographer, to ponder the photograph.

“Why did you chose that picture?” she asked.

I talked about how much I liked the way the color of my Argentinian suede boots matched the color of Joshua’s cello.

“That’s chance!” she said.

She continued:

“I like it very much, too. You may know what moment this was, but of course I don’t. And so I look at it and think, ‘Well, there are these things that make it interesting that you can’t plan.’ You really can’t plan the moment. It just happens in front of you. You look at it and you might say, ‘Oh, I think the shadows are wonderful because they bring you in as a member of the audience, into the picture. And the light, the way it hits the screen in the back joins the two of you, sort of.’ But you can’t plan it and so, therefore, what happens is it happens. [Henri] Cartier-Bresson talked about the moment and that exact moment. Well, sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. You honestly can’t prepare it, except to have film in your camera or a card in your digital camera.
And this picture all of a sudden brings you into it, and you want to know what you are saying. To me, I’m thinking this is the end of the piece, and Joshua has stopped playing, and he is totally into it. What does this mean? What is attracting the attention so? What are the words? Whatever they are, they mean something beautiful somehow. Like, I must pay attention here. What do you think?”

What I think is that art-making necessarily requires having no assumptions, expecting no conclusion, and living fully in what I might call the somewhere along the way.

I sent the photograph to Joshua and asked him what he remembered about it. He didn’t remember what we were doing or saying either. Was it the Imam we had invited to come and perform with us? Was it the day we met him? Neither of us thought so. He said:

“It is a moment where we are not the proper noun, but somehow we are captured as the subject, and I really want to know what is happening outside the photo.”

The photograph is finished, even though our work is not, because Diana successfully brought the pieces of us — our pieces, our unfinishedness — together in a moment. She found us in a moment. Caught us. Finished us.

Diana had said:

“Your point of view is when everything comes together in your mind. You want it to be a whole, but you don’t learn that until you — I think it helps to have a life of looking at pictures whether it’s painting or drawings or photographs.”

“So much of it is chance!” she said more than once in the conversation.

I asked Joshua what role he thought chance played in his work as a composer and a virtuoso. He giggled as if to say, “Chance? What planet are you on?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, “Chance visits the prepared mind?”

“Luck is preparation meets opportunity,” he said.

You have to look at lots and lots of pictures to get the picture when you see it, by chance, standing right before you.

I think process is an art form too, especially when planned with enough grace to absorb the falls.