Perhaps you know Anna Deavere Smith from her roles in Showtime's Nurse Jackie (playing ER administrator Gloria Akalitus) or The West Wing (as National Security Adviser Nancy McNally).
But Smith, 64, has had a parallel career creating solo performance pieces. In them, she portrays characters that illuminate some of the thorniest issues in American life. She’s been traveling across the U.S. for 30 years, interviewing people involved in historic events as if she were an anthropologist. She uses their stories as raw material for her plays, which have covered subjects from the Los Angeles riots of 1992 to the broken American health care system.
On April 6, Smith gave the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The opportunity to present is considered one of the nation's top honors in the humanities.
(MORE: Anna Deavere Smith on Art, Creativity and Transcendence)
During her talk before a packed hall at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, she said her latest one-woman show about the failure and promise of American education was like "coming home." The subject brings Smith back to her roots in Baltimore, Md., as she explores the “school to prison pipeline,” searching for any hopeful signs of progress.
Her aunts from Baltimore, where she grew up, were in the house, giving the actress a chance to josh that they and her mother always encouraged her to hold on to a day job like teaching, so she wouldn't have to count on the uncertainties of work as an actress. Smith has heeded their advice; she's been teaching since 1973, currently at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She also received a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 1996 and won the National Humanities Medal in 2012.
Creating A New Kind of Theater
Smith is said to have created a completely new kind of theater. A born mimic, she plays all the parts in her performances.
In her first one-woman show, she played men and women on both sides of the tense racial divide between Hasidic Jews and African Americans in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the wake of a 1991 incident in which a young boy was killed by a car and a Jewish student was murdered in retaliation. She followed that up with Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — about the post-Rodney King rioting. A monologue from that show provided one of the high points of the NEH lecture.
Mrs. Young-Soon Han was a Korean liquor store owner who described herself as "swallowing the bitterness" after rioters burned down her business.
"The fire is still there," she says. "Igniting fire is still there. It could burst out any time."
As Smith became Young-Soon Han, her face and body transformed, and she slowed down into a rhythm that seemed completely self-assured. The accomplished actress eloquently inhabits all her characters this way.
And during her lecture, those characters were as varied as America. She became master storyteller Studs Terkel, looking back at America's first great chronicler Mark Twain.
She was Representative John Lewis, describing miracles of reconciliation in the modern South, as he revisited the Alabama cities where he'd been beaten during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
(MORE: 1964: The Year America Lost It)
And — from the Pipeline project — she channeled Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a Philadelphia, Pa. principal whose advocacy for her children in one of the poorest sections of town is brave beyond belief, optimistic amidst devastating statistics and daunting obstacles.
When Smith as Cliatt-Wayman sees a young woman who has grown from being lackluster in high school to becoming a successful college student, she exclaims "Just one, Jesus. Just one."
The Pipeline Project’s Urgency
After Smith's talk, she sat for a short interview by Jeffrey Brown, chief arts correspondent for PBS NewsHour. During that conversation, it became clear what is different about her current project and why Smith feels its success is so crucial.
In the past, she said, she has developed material for her shows, which have then been subject to the usual pressure of plays on their way to New York. She has honed them over time and depended on a positive reception by critics to make them successful.
But the Pipeline project is much too important to her to let it percolate in that way. As she has interviewed students, teachers, parents, politicians and others involved in education and corrections, she has become convinced that time is running out for these kids.
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So she is sharing this material as soon as it's developed, including in venues like the Jefferson Lecture, and she's planning to collaborate with a theater in Baltimore to get the work out earlier in the process than she ever has. After a lifetime of presenting issues on the stage, it's not the issues themselves, but the world-changing action that audiences might take that matters to her now.
Is she optimistic that she can make a difference? Can Americans move closer to the "more perfect union" that our Founding Fathers envisioned?
"Totally," she told Brown. Then, remembering to promote one of her day jobs, she reminded the audience to make sure to catch her in the upcoming season of Nurse Jackie, which premieres on Showtime April 12.
Steve Mencher writes about culture, politics and technology for Next Avenue, AARP and other publications. He's also a jazz musician with the Willis Gidney Quintet. Follow him on Twitter @menschmedia.