Playwright, actor, and educator Anna Deavere Smith uses her singular brand of theatre to highlight issues of community, character, and diversity in America. The MacArthur Foundation honored Smith with the “Genius” Fellowship for creating “a new form of theatre — a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reverie.” In 2017, she was awarded the 35th George Polk Career Award for courageous and authentic journalism.
Best known for crafting one-woman shows based on conversations with real people from all walks of life, Smith turns her interviews into scripts, transforming herself into an astonishing number of characters. For her multi-character plays about American social issues, Smith has been awarded the 2013 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the largest and most prestigious awards in the arts, as well as the National Humanities Medal.
Smith’s breakthrough plays, Fires in the Mirror and the Tony-nominated Twilight: Los Angeles, which dramatized the LA Riots in the days that followed the Rodney King trial, tackle issues of race and social inequality that have become touchstones of her work. Her upcoming play on the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, continues in this tradition by exploring the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration prevalent in low-income communities.
2009's Let Me Down Easy examines healthcare and the resilience and vulnerability of the human body. Smith presents 19 characters, including a bull rider to a prize fighter to a New Orleans doctor during Hurricane Katrina to Texas Governor Ann Richards to Lance Armstrong. With a mix of personalities based on patients and healthcare professionals, she delivers a vivid look at healthcare in the United States. The show aired on PBS’ Great Performances in 2012.
In addition to appearing on Showtime's Nurse Jackie, Smith’s television credits include The West Wing, Black-ish, and Madame Secretary. She has appeared in films, including Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia, and The American President.
In 1997, Smith founded Anna Deavere Smith Works at Harvard. Now part of the Aspen Institute, where Smith is on the Board of Trustees, ADS Works “cultivates artistic excellence that embraces the social issues of the day.” In 2016, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for theatre arts.
A University Professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and an affiliate with the NYU School of Law, Smith delivered the 2015 NEH Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
A SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT PROGRAMS WITH ANNA DEAVERE SMITH
All presentations by Anna Deavere Smith include theatrical performance elements, as she steps away from the podium, transforming herself into characters she has created and selected for each event. These living portraits of both legendary and everyday people illustrate and illuminate the themes of her topics.
Snapshots: Portraits of a World in Transition
Ms. Smith, who is said to have created a new form of theater, has been listening to people across the country from all walks of life for the last several years, using Walt Whitman’s idea “to absorb America” as an inspiration. To illustrate her goal of bringing “people across the chasms” of what she calls the “complex identities of America,” Ms. Smith performs portrayals of people she has interviewed during the course of her presentation, recreating a diversity of emotions and points of view on controversial issues.
Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity
We live in a winner-take-all society. And yet, part of our potential as humans is our potential for compassion and our resilience in the face of adversity. While doing research for her play “Let Me Down Easy,” Anna Deavere Smith interviewed people in the US and abroad who demonstrated grace in the face of dramatic challenges. The speech celebrates the resilience of the human spirit, the power of kindness, the strength of imagination, and hope.
Doing Time in Education: The School-to-Prison Pipeline
As research for her new work, Anna Deavere Smith created the Pipeline Project as a way to apply her signature form of documentary theater to investigate the school-to-prison pipeline — the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth. Now more than ever, we need a moral imagination to put a face on the challenges faced by minority youth and to animate policy conversations around this and other issues of social inequality. In the preliminary stages of developing the piece, she conducted interviews with hundreds of people who are involved in the Pipeline at all levels: students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, and many more.
From Rodney King to Michael Brown: Anna Deavere Smith on the Narrative of Ferguson
Health Care: The Human Story
For her one-woman show, Let Me Down Easy, Anna-Deavere Smith conducted thousands of hours of interviews with patients, doctors, and administrators to expose the complexities of the American Health Care system. People all over the country shared their own stories with Smith, giving her a unique perspective on what is happening in the health care today. In her speech “Health Care: The Human Story,” her subjects’ hearts and humanity get the spotlight. Turning her interviews into the script, Smith relives their experiences on stage in a powerful and surprising presentation.
Race in America: Accepting Difference, Standing Shoulder to Shoulder
The Art of Communication: Storytelling, Listening, and Authenticity
On Resilience: Standing up for Women and Girls
Engaging the World: The Role of the Artist in Society