What is grace?” asks Anna Deavere Smith, onstage in character as Reverend Peter Gomes. “What is grace? Well, that’s no small question.” This not-small question fueled a three-week artistic residency at the University of Chicago, culminating in the presentation of Smith’s ongoing work, “Conversations on Grace.”

Over three cold weeks, Smith gave two public performances of the show, one at the UofC’s Logan Center and another at the Harris Theater downtown. Smith plays real characters, their monologues formed from verbatim quotes culled from decades of interviews with figures famous and civilian: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, inmate Paulette Jenkins. It is not quite a one-woman show; cellist Joshua Roman joins Smith onstage. The piece is a proud work in progress; Smith does not know where it will go from Harris, only that it will go. In the week between the two Chicago performances, monologues grew and contracted or were swapped out entirely at the judgment of Smith and director Leonard Foglia. Some touch on grace explicitly. In others it is hard to see grace at all.

By design, the conversation isn’t limited to the stage. Audience discussions followed each performance, and Smith also appeared at Logan with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle for a public discussion, “On Grace and Politics,” moderated by David Axelrod.

Call a show “Conversations on Grace” and the audience will look for it, asking where, if not what. Grace slips through most easily in the conversations with religious figures, perhaps because we expect to find it there. In a search for grace, it is simple to turn to the preacher, the imam, the monk, the rabbi. The religious connotations of the word are never fully shed.

The cellist’s renditions of “Amazing Grace” that loosely frame the show reinforce Christian underpinnings, but the word’s theological definition acts as a jumping off point more than anything else. “If you don’t have a word, you might not even see it,” Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf tells Smith. And so the word is grace, and though it cannot be cleaved fully from its religious roots, it stretches beyond the hymnal pages, naming moments aligned with everything from courage to beauty to mercy.

It’s hard not to look for something else in the show as well, and that’s Smith herself. Smith plays eleven different figures, but she too is a character. The artist refers to her portrayals as portraits; in reciting the words of her interviewee, she becomes her subject. On stage, she is speaking to us as someone who spoke to her. She is at once the stage’s most compelling presence and its most phantomlike. We are reminded only periodically that Smith was in the room. Boxer Michael Bentt punctuates his boisterous indictment of his father with “Anna, Anna, Anna,” and Justice O’Connor, suddenly old, shouts reproachfully into the phone, “I’m here with Anna Deavere Smith.” And so are we. There is a multitude of Annas, as the characters address the audience, or the cellist, or the empty space in which we imagine her.  The only time we see Smith onstage as herself is after the ending chords of the final song have played, when she stands stoic alongside Roman to a standing ovation. She is gracious, but tight lipped.

Mute but for his cello, Roman is an elegant scene partner. At different points during the monologues he is pupil, audience, or accomplice. The compositions that punctuate the speeches and transitions are largely original, save for a few well-known pieces the cellist plays when Smith’s characters mention them—“Amazing Grace,” “Rock of Ages,” “Is that All There Is?” The effect is that of a brilliant and affable conversationalist with occasional well-timed quotations. At times, the cello provides a soundtrack to the speaker, underscoring the Imam’s dream or the Monk’s story, or leading us from one portrait to the next. His interludes give grace when it is most needed.

Smith’s most wrenching character is inmate Paulette Jenkins, whom she interviewed almost two decades ago. Jenkins stares at the audience, back straight, from center stage, as she details her family’s years of abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, who beat her daughter to death. The audience becomes one of clasped hands, their own and others. The woman in front of me cradles her young daughter’s head, covering her ears.

From prison, Jenkins tells us of their attempts to hide the crime, including a drive out to the interstate to dump the body. Smith doesn’t move as Roman begins to play, but stands, shaking with breath. Without his chords, I don’t know whether anyone would have exhaled.

Jenkins is one of the best representations of the ways grace remains elusive in the piece. In an audience discussion after the performance at Logan, participants struggled with the monologue’s brutality. Some called it graceless.

Days later, speaking for a few moments on the stairwell by the theater’s soundbooth, Smith reflects on the monologue. “Part of looking for something is looking for what it’s not,” she muses, “I think portraying its opposite creates a kind of call for it.” But she also finds grace in Jenkin’s testimony, in the courage required to give it.

On stage with President Preckwinkle and David Axelrod to discuss grace and politics, the conversation wandered across a swath of injustices. Time ran out as Smith made a point about racial segregation in prison, and Axelrod began to wrap up, pointing to the two women’s work as evidence for optimism. Smith cut in: “I’m always in this argument with my director, Leonard Foglia, because he’s like you. He thinks my plays have to end with the good news. I’m really attracted to catastrophe. I think catastrophe is very mobilizing.”

A week later, Smith ends her show as Rabbi David Wolpe, reminding us of the story of Noah. After the flood, God shows Noah a rainbow, and tells him he will never again destroy the world. “But there’s this chilling omission,” says Wolpe, “He doesn’t say, ‘You won’t destroy the world,’ he just says, ‘I won’t.’” She walks out to the chords of “Amazing Grace,” and the show closes with the oldest catastrophe we know. There is a standing ovation. If there is grace to be found, maybe it is in the moments when, one way or another, we step back from the work of destroying the world.

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