Tony-Nominated Playwright & Actress
Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright and actress who is credited with having created a new form of theater. Her plays, which focus on contemporary issues from multiple points of view, are composed of excerpts from hundreds of interviews. Plays and films based on them include Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles, Let Me Down Easy, and Notes from the Field about the school-to-prison pipeline. Her work as an actress on television includes Inventing Anna, The West Wing, Nurse Jackie, and Black-ish. Mainstream movies include Philadelphia, The American President, Rachel Getting Married, and Billy Crystal’s movie Here Today. President Obama awarded Smith the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. She’s the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, several Obie awards, a Drama Desk award, the George Polk Career Award in Journalism, and the Dean’s Medal from Stanford University School of Medicine. She was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for two Tony Awards. She’s a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has several honorary doctorate degrees including those from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Spelman College, Juilliard, and Oxford.
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.
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 decades, 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.
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 empathy, the strength of imagination, and hope.
As research for her newest play and HBO special, Notes from the Field, 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 reckoning of the challenges faced by minority youth and a radical shift in the policy conversations around this and other issues of social inequality. While developing this work, Smith 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. If we are to change the system, we must change the conversation.