Anna Deavere Smith

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Tony-Nominated Playwright & Actress

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Anna Deavere Smith: Biography at a Glance

  • Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright, actor, and educator who uses a new form of theatre to explore issues of community, character, and diversity in America.
  • She discusses the many “complex identities of America” and interweaves her discussions with portrayals of people she has interviewed to illustrate the diversity of emotions and points of view on controversial issues.
  • Her play, Notes from the Field, looks at the School-to-Prison Pipeline and injustice and inequality in low-income communities.
  • On television, she is most recognizable as the hospital administrator on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and the National Security Advisor on NBC’s The West Wing.
  • Smith has also appeared in such films as The American President, Rachel Getting Married, and Philadelphia.
  • Smith is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which was launched at Harvard University and is now housed at New York University, where she is a Professor at Tisch School of the Arts.
  • Her books include Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines.

Videos

Biography

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 MirrorTwilight: 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.

Topics

A Special Note About Programs With Anna Deavere Smitharrow-down

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 Transitionarrow-down

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.

Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversityarrow-down

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. 

Doing Time in Education: The School-to-Prison Pipelinearrow-down

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.

The Art of Communicating: Storytelling, Listening, and the Pathway to Connection

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