Anna Deavere Smith’s The Arizona Project Spotlights Sandra Day O’Connor and a Generation of Overlooked Women

Sheriff Joe Arpaio appears in Anna Deavere Smith's new play, but don't ask her to tell you how he comes off.

"He's in there, that's all I'm saying," Smith says firmly. "You'll just have to come to the production to see how he shows up."

Local theatergoers will be among the first to have the opportunity to see what the Tony-nominated playwright has done with Arpaio (and a host of other local politicos, public servants, and laypeople) when the piece, The Arizona Project, debuts in a staged reading at the Herberger next month. But Sheriff Joe isn't the focus of the play, which wraps monologues about the law's impact on women's lives around stories of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

O'Connor is at the center of the play, which was commissioned to commemorate the 2006 naming of ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, the first U.S. law school to be named for a woman (which Smith calls "unusual, because programs are usually named after donors"). But O'Connor is merely the centerpiece of a larger story about the ways in which justice is defined differently for women, told in a series of 30 interwoven monologues drawn from interviews Smith conducted during three week-long visits to Arizona earlier this year.

There's nothing new about a one-woman, multi-character show built on interviews with a bunch of different people; recent popular examples of the genre include Joan Holden's Nickel and Dimed and Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire. But Smith is considered the grand mistress of the form. With 1997's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Fires in the Mirror, she created 29 different characters from verbatim interviews with participants in and witnesses to Brooklyn's 1991 Crown Heights Riot between Lubavitch Jews and African Americans. Her Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, which won a Drama Desk Award and was nominated for a pair of Tonys, compressed 175 interviews into 25 personalities who comment on the civil unrest that resulted from the infamous Rodney King verdict. These and other, similar plays by Smith (including the most recently produced installment, Let Me Down Easy, about the frailties of the human body and the horrors of our health care system) are part of a larger work in progress she calls On the Road: A Search for American Character.

The O'Connor piece is the next in the series, and is set in and around Phoenix. Smith interviewed local women with relationships to the American judicial system, including jailhouse employees, female inmates, lawyers, and activists. Besides O'Connor and Arpaio, local celebs and quasi-celebs Smith interviewed include Mayor Phil Gordon, attorney and Latino activist Danny Ortega, and New Times staff writer Ray Stern, about the donnybrook with Arpaio lawyer Michele Iafrate that occurred when Stern tried to photograph public records at her office.

"Smith's assistants set up tape recorders and she asked me a bunch of questions about what happened with Iafrate," Stern says. "They took some pictures of me, packed up, and left. Pretty routine stuff. But the funny thing was that she was really interested in my shoes. She told one of her assistants, 'Make sure you get his shoes.'"

"My work is based on the interviews I do in preparation for it," Smith says of how she creates her characters, all of whom she portrays herself without costume changes in each of the On the Road installments. Some of the people she interviews only inform another character's vision or place in the story, while others (like O'Connor in the new piece) become characters drawn from real life.

Phoenix is a likely setting for Smith's work. We've garnered national attention with Arpaio's civil rights violations and with local immigration issues, both the sort of justice-driven topics Smith loves to write about. And O'Connor — who grew up on a ranch in Duncan, Arizona, and had to settle for a secretarial job after graduating from Stanford — is the perfect local personality on which to hang stories of injustice to women. But the timing of Smith's new play has less to do with our hot-topic town than it has with her connection to the organization that commissioned the play.

She once worked with Bruce Ferguson now director of Future Arts Research, an ASU arts-driven research program that will pair acclaimed artists with ASU department heads to create new, cultural perspectives on old research models. Its first phase will concern issues of justice and human rights, both themes prevalent in most of Smith's work.

But the playwright, whose more high-profile acting jobs have included recurring roles on The West Wing and The Practice and a part in the just-released Anne Hathaway picture Rachel Getting Married, says The Arizona Project is about more than a commissioned piece pegged to the naming of a local law school. O'Connor, Smith says, belongs to a generation of women who are often overlooked, a fact she hopes to change.

"Women of Justice O'Connor's generation didn't have the benefit of [the women's] movement," she says. "They had to rely on their own, individual can-do attitudes to reach their goals. Justice O'Connor is a role model for the role models."

Smith's admiration of O'Connor didn't win the retired judge any special favors from the playwright. "She'll be seeing the play for the first time, just like everyone else," Smith says. "On opening night."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela