Playwright, actor, and teacher Anna Deavere Smith is a powerful voice in the world of theater. Her plays, performances, and instruction have touched a wide variety of audiences. However, perhaps her most compelling work lies in her insights into the American culture. On Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 11:10 a.m., Smith shared some of her insights as she gives a convocation address entitled “Snapshots: Glimpses of America in Change.”Smith is from Baltimore, Maryland, and is the daughter of a coffee and tea merchant and an elementary school principal. Although she grew up in a segregated neighborhood, her high school years allowed her to interact with people from many other races and cultures. Those years fostered a strong interest in language and the social dynamics of the world around her and led her to a degree in linguistics at Beaver College in 1971. Later she completed an M.F.A. degree at the American Conservatory Theatre in 1976.
By this time she was already experimenting in combining her interests in theater and surrounding cultures. She began carrying a tape recorder and interviewing people and recording events that she encountered with the intent of performing their words and stories on the stage. The culmination of this project was her first play On the Road (1983), although the development of this technique to create productions continues to this day.
Smith’s productions are unique in that she is the playwright and the performer. In her 1993 Pulitzer Prize nominated Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, Smith alone recreates the tension between the black and Hassidic populations of Brooklyn. This play includes the accounts of interviewing fifty different people through the same technique that began her career.
Smith continued this tradition with the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1992) based on the Rodney King incident and the riots that followed. This production, which dynamically combines the feel of journalism and stage drama, was rewarded with an Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award, an Obie Award, a Drama Desk Award, two Tony nominations, and two NAACP Theater Awards. The film version of this play, directed by Marc Levin (director of Slam) was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.
For her brilliant work in combining different mediums, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her with the Genius Fellowship in 1996. She was also chosen as the first artist-in-residence at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Her time spent in Washington led to the creation of her play House Arrest, which draws on the events of the Lewinsky impeachment scandal.
Her work as an educator and screen performer is also widely known. Teaching positions have included Carnegie-Mellon, NYU, USC, Yale, Stanford, and currently the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
Among many other performing credits, Smith has appeared in the soap opera All My Children, and the films Dave, Philadelphia, and The American President where she played the White House Press Secretary.
Smith also has a recurring roll in the popular NBC series West Wing, and Smith said in an interview before her convocation that they recently taped episode 51, and she will be in it.