House Arrest and Piano: Two Plays

House Arrest and Piano: Two Plays

by Anna Deavere Smith

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From the award-winning actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, two teeming, pungent cross-sections of the American experience.

In the provocative and at times bitterly funny play House Arrest, Smith examines the relationships between a succession of American presidents and their observers in and out of the press. Arcing from Clinton and Monica

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From the award-winning actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, two teeming, pungent cross-sections of the American experience.

In the provocative and at times bitterly funny play House Arrest, Smith examines the relationships between a succession of American presidents and their observers in and out of the press. Arcing from Clinton and Monica Lewinsky to Jefferson and Sally Hemings and alive with the voices of such real-life figures as Ed Bradley, George Stephanopoulos, Anita Hill, and Abraham Lincoln, the result is a priceless examination of the intersection of public power and private life.

In Piano, Smith casts her gaze back a century as she follows the tangled lines of race, sex, and exploitation in a prosperous Cuban household on the eve of the Spanish-American War. Deftly and suspensefully, Smith tells a story of ruptured allegiances and ramifying deceptions in which no one—master or servant, friend or enemy—is what he or she pretends to be. Together these two plays are further proof that Anna Deavere Smith is one of the most searing and revelatory voices in the American theater.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“As Anna Deavere Smith’s unique theatrical experiences have illustrated, history can be most revealing, not to mention most entertaining, when it’s liberated from the books and caught on the wing.” —Variety

“The most exciting individual in American theater.” —Newsweek

For those who appreciate Deveare's documentary-based history plays (most famously, Twilight Los Angeles, about the Rodney King riots), this book might appeal on two counts. House Arrest follows her well-known documentary format, weaving together actual text—this time to, as the play's subtitle asserts, "search for American character in and around the White House, past and present." Using the actual words of Ken Burns, Gary Hart, Peggy Noonan, Thomas Jefferson, George Stephanopolous and others, she examines political image and reality through the lens of presidents and those who observe them. A fascinating piece for students to read and perform. The second piece gives fans a different look at Smith's work. This is a more conventional play, with invented characters, but it still deals with some of her most significant themes of race, gender and history. It is set at the time of the Spanish-American war, as Smith wanted a time and place where she could believably place people of all different races in one room. It's interesting, but has less immediate pedagogical use than House Arrest. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Random House, Anchor, 281p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Daniel Levinson
Library Journal
One of theater's most noted monologists-a small clique that includes John Leguizamo-Smith chronicled manifestations of urban rage on both coasts in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The characters in those plays were based on real-life witnesses whom Smith interviewed. This book collects House Arrest, a drama about occupants and employees of the White House who are less residents than prisoners under 24-hour surveillance, and Piano, a story of rage and rape between the classes in Cuba on the eve of the Spanish American War. Like her earlier works, House Arrest incorporates interview materials (including verbal tics) as well as historic texts on Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln. However, it is made up of 42 speaking parts; the number of actors needed is flexible, and the gender of the characters portrayed need not be matched to the gender of the actors. While the theme may not be a revelation, Smith's skill with words and pacing makes this a compelling drama. Piano, on the other hand, would probably play better than it reads. A strong and sensitive directorial hand, together with an experienced group of actors, would make much of it. Recommended for academic libraries that support theater programs.-Larry Schwartz, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Moorhead Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.67(d)

Read an Excerpt

House Arrest
A Search for American Character In and Around the White House, Past and Present

House Arrest was originally commissioned and produced by the Arena Stage, Washington, D.C., on November 7, 1997. Doug Wager, Artistic Director.

It was subsequently produced by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director. It premiered on April 9, 1999.

Its original New York production was provided by the Public Theater, George C. Wolfe, Producer. It opened at the Public Theater on March 26, 2000.

Special thanks to the Goodman Theatre.

Special thanks to the Intiman Theatre.

General Production Notes

House Arrest is a form of documentary theater. It requires a different kind of acting than psychological realism and depends on an "informed actor."

This play is about real events, using the words of real people. The audience should be made aware of that. Slides should be used, if possible, to announce each character and to inform the audience that the words in the play are verbatim from interviews. A slide with the following language should begin the show, just after lights down, and before any other visual image:

"All words spoken by speakers in the twentieth century are verbatim from interviews conducted by Anna Deavere Smith, unless otherwise noted. All other materials are verbatim from historic texts."

The audience also needs to be given a background on the events. This can be achieved by the use of dramaturgical notes, but it can also be included in the body of the play-with visual aids such as slides and videos, if possible. The overall context of the play is the Clinton administration and the relationship of President Clinton to the press. The actor's accuracy of language is important. All of the utterances, every "uh" and other nonverbal sounds, where noted, are rhythmic beats that inform the development of character. Many times a character speaks in a counterintuitive way, in which words in and of themselves do not make sense. The play has been written as an extension of research done by the author on the relationship of language to identity. It is recommended that a specific person be included on the production team who gives line notes and makes corrections. The process of playing the play and speaking the words in their exact presentation is the core of the technique of performing the play.

Music and sound effects are useful and important for flow. In all initial productions, original music was composed. Costumes, stage sets, and props can be as minimal or as ornate as one imagines. The play is performed in bare feet, except when shoes are meant to make a specific statement. Bare feet signify the idea of walking in someone else's shoes.

The author sees actors as cultural workers, who reach toward that which is "other" than themselves, who reach toward that which is different from themselves. To this extent, typecasting should only be used in relationship to casting that is about that reach for the other. People should be cast across race, age, and gender lines. The play is vocally and verbally demanding and requires first and foremost actors with a good vocal and physical range and a facility with language and movement.

Many pieces start with the note (In reality), and there follows a description of the age, race, and gender of the speaker. This is only as a frame of reference. It is not suggested or necessary to cast as such.


All of the characters are people who are alive or who were alive. They can be played by a company of one or more actors. Actors play several different roles. Gender and race do not need to match those of the characters listed.

As the lights go down:
Slide: All words spoken by speakers in the twentieth century are verbatim from interviews conducted by Anna Deavere Smith, unless otherwise noted. All other materials are verbatim from historic texts.

Slide: Act One

Slide: I. Frame

Slide: Studs Terkel, Americanist Radio Host


(In reality STUDS TERKEL is a white man in his nineties.)

(Wearing a trench coat, red socks, Hush Puppies, carrying a cane, and wearing small fedora hat.)

Ya know, when it gets back to as far as guys,
Presidents with dames-
My God!
Ya know!
Kennedy, my God!
It wasn't so much Addison's disease,
he suffered from satyriasis probably!
In fact he said it!
So what?
And my favorite President,
the one the one President of the century,
major league,
FDR of course,
well FDR is said to have had a fling with a socialite!
And he had polio!
I said my God the man has polio,
this might be very good therapy!
Long before McCarthy there was New Salem.
I think Hillary has a point-
about it being a right-wing. . . .
that's too simple!
Well of course they're out to get him!
That's not what the issue is to me!
The issue is-
What the hell have we learned?
Where are we?
I was born in 1912,
the year the Titanic,
the greatest ship ever built-
It hits the tip of an iceberg and bam! It went down.
It went down,
and I came up.
Wow some century!
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH V.O.: What's the defining moment in American history?
STUDS TERKEL: Defining moment in American history?
I don't think there's one you can't say Hiroshima.
That's a big moment.
I don't think there's any one.
I can't pick out any one.
It's a combination of many.
I can't think of any one moment I'd say is the defining moment.
But the gradual slippage-
slippage is the word used by people in
moral slippage.
t's a gradual kind of thing.
A combination of things.
But it's not this-
This almost becomes not the crowning touch,
but the clowning touch!
It's the clowning touch!
It ends with a fright wig,
putty nose,
with baggy pants!
And this is it!
It's not just Clinton and Monica!
We all are wearing the fright wig and putty nose and baggy pants!
We're all demeaned!
By that, I mean,
all of us are clowns and that's what it's all about!
Instead of a new century with all the discoveries made,
in medicine-
perhaps more to come and yet with fewer and fewer people controlling,
more and more and more,
and the more and more and more feeling more and more and more helpless.
And who runs the means of communication that condition these people to vote as they vote and think as they think?
We got Lewinsky-ism and Monica-ism!
Instead of "What the hell have we been doing to all these countries and to the have-nots in this country?"
So we're wearing baggy pants, putty nose, and fright wigs.
We've been conditioned to wear them by this time.
The thing that was so great about Mark Twain!
We honor Mark Twain ya know-
but we don't read 'im!
We may read Huck Finn-
Even Huck of course was tremendous.
Remember what Huck did?
That great scene on the raft you know-
when Huck see-
You have to question official truth!
So truth is the law was
A black man is property is a thing!
And he's (Huck is) on with a property named Jim,
a slave, see-
on the raft-
and he heard that Jim says he's going to do a terrible thing.
And Huck is thirteen, twelve and Jim said he's going to look for his wife and kids and he's gonna steal them from the woman or person who owns them and Huck says "That woman never did me any harm!
he's gonna steal!
In, in Huck's own mind-
Huck Finn is what it's all about-
the goodness of Huck, you see-
He's an illiterate kid right?
He's had no schoolin'-
But there's something in 'im. (Whispering, expressive, urgent.)
And he says "Oh it's a terrible thing, wow what an awful thing he's gonna steal."
And just then two slavers caught up!
The guys chasing the slaves-
lookin' for Jim ya know and they come up "Anybody on that raft with ya?"
And Huck yeah (dibdebi)
(They know there's somebody there.)
"Is he white or black?"
And Huck says
And they go off.
"Oh my God my conscience"
"I lied!"
Ya know
I lied and he's gonna-
But if
"I did a terrible thing
why do I feel so good?"
There ya got it!
In Huck ya captured the human species.
That stuff that Huck is there that part's been buried!

Slide: Seeing and Being Seen

Slide: George Stephanopoulos, Former Assistant to President Clinton

"The Deal"

(An attractive, charismatic, white male in his thirties with a fast metabolism.)

(Sipping a martini.)

We're a celebrity culture,
and the President is the Celebrity in Chief.
I think the only private time a President has,
is when he's in the Oval-
and he walks from the Oval to either his private study or his private bathroom.
That's it!
Once he's in the residence he can move between rooms.
But there's still some servants around.
As far as officially, the only truly private time he has is within that small suite, which is one-
(He counts.)
It's four rooms, plus a terrace and one of those rooms is a bathroom.
He's sitting at a desk with one of the best views in Washington-
certainly the best morning light I've ever seen in my life-
But it's got glass this thick,
that can't be . . .
You've got a-
two secretaries on the outside and two Secret Service people between them-
As you move across the hall in the Oval there's another room to where,
there's a tiny little pantry and there's another Secret Service agent there-
And then you get to my office
is wired!
Like if I
moved in the back door,
between my office and the Oval the Secret Service would know! Because it was wired!
I've never thought of it this way before-
What happens, when you juxtapose incredible, immense, power?
But the price-
I mean it's a different um,
it's a different devil's choice!
The price is,
Everything you do is known.
You can be the most powerful person in the world (upward inflection)
you're going to uh,
have every privilege known to man!
Every whim is going to be catered to!
The deal is-
You can do whatever you want.
The price is that everybody is going to know everything you do.

Slide: A Visit to Jefferson's Home at Monticello

Slide: Cinder Stanton, Historian at Monticello


(CINDER is center stage on a stool.)

(In reality an Anglo-Saxon white woman in her late forties, friendly, down-to-earth, intellectual.)

I'm reading something this morning talking about Jefferson as a landscape designer and he uses the word "panoptic" uh which means all-seeing uh.
It can also mean all seen from everywhere which is interesting.
It's one of those Greek words that uh,
Jefferson had named one of his farms
"Pantops" you know based on that,
which means either seen from everywhere,
or you can see everything from there.
so the whole choice,
of Monticello as a panoptic,
uh perch,
is very very,
He certainly took measures so that he couldn't be seen.
But he bought everything he could see,
and then a hundred yards beyond the line of sight.
So it was obvious,
he was just sort of buying his own view,
It's interesting, just in relation to what you said in terms of modern
That that word has a double meaning.
That they are all-seeing,
or being seen by everyone.

Slide: Penny Kiser, Monticello Tour Guide

"Justice Is in One Scale"

(In reality a white woman in her late thirties, Southern accent.)

Okay. Okay, he couldn't take care of it. What, what-what, what's another reason? Those are good reasons. What else do you think? What else? (Laugh.)

Thinking he never learned, right? That he was just a big boss? He was. Yeah, he was. Most people say, well, economically, he couldn't afford it. And that is true. You know, Thomas Jefferson died a hundred seven thousand dollars in debt. Many of his slaves were mortgaged, so he didn't have the right to sell them, but, oh, I mean to free them, but also, Thomas Jefferson said, he said, "You know, to free people brought up in the habits of slavery is like abandoning children."

Remember that law of 1806? When they had to leave within a year? That, uh played a big part in his decision, too. He just said until America is ready, these slaves can't be free. We all have to agree. You know, in his Notes on the State of Virginia-Now some of us might say, well, that's kind of a cop-out by Thomas Jefferson, but in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he had a plan, and his plan was . . . Eh, I think he sort of set the year, December 31, 1800, he said, Let's everybody . . . He said, By then, this is the age of the Enlightenment, everybody will agree slavery is wrong, and by that year, let's take all the new babies born that year, we're gonna separate 'em from their mother and father. He said, I know that's gonna be hard, but, we've got to do it. And he said, The government's gonna pay. And we're going to train them, according, he said, to their genius. In trades. Then, when the women reach eighteen and the men twenty-one, we're going to take them, lock, stock, and barrel, and place them in a black community, maybe in the West Indies. Or maybe back to Africa. 'Cause he said, um, they will never forgive us for what ha— the, the way we treated them. So, we will start trading. They, they'll have their own little country, we'll pay until they're ready. Okay, that was his plan. He was so disappointed when he, by 1800, you know, nobody's ready to do it. One of his friends, Edmund Coves, writes him, and he says, Now listen, I'm leavin' Virginia, and I'm freeing my slaves, and you ought to be the example. You ought to do the same thing. He said, No. He said, I'm so sorry you have to leave Virginia. But he said, I just cannot abandon, you know, my family. He knew the time would come, and he felt that eventually everyone would agree, but until that time came, he said I wouldn't do it.

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