As an actor, playwright and teacher, Anna Deavere Smith has built a remarkably wide-ranging and respected career.
Her work, which explores the American character and our multifaceted national identity, has been acclaimed by the media, critics and audiences across the country. The MacArthur Foundation awarded Ms. Smith a prestigious fellowship in 1996, saying she “has created a new form of theatre — a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.”
Looking at controversial events from multiple points of view, Ms. Smith's work combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through her performance. The New York Times has called her “the ultimate impressionist: she does people's souls.”
As playwright and performer, Ms. Smith has created a series of ongoing theatrical works over the past 19 years which she calls On The Road: A Search for American Character.
Fires In The Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn And Other Identities, explored the 1991 clash between Jews and Blacks in that New York community. The play was the runner-up for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and earned Ms. Smith an Obie and numerous other awards. Fires also was broadcast on PBS as part of "The American Playhouse" series. First performed at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, Ms. Smith has taken the play on tour across the United States and to Australia and London.
Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, examined the civil unrest following the Rodney King verdict, received critical acclaim on Broadway and in Los Angeles. Ms. Smith received two Tony nominations for Twilight, as well as an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics, two NAACP Theatre Awards, and numerous other honors.
Ms. Smith has continued to perform both Twilight and Fires to critical acclaim at theatres across the country and as far away as Australia. Her 1997 performance of Twilight at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. drew an audience that included President and Mrs. Clinton and Vice President Gore.
The film adaptation of Twilight, conceived, written and performed by Ms. Smith and directed by Marc Levin, premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Twilight: Los Angeles was broadcast on PBS as a presentation of Thirteen/WNET’s prime time drama series, “Stage on Screen.”
Ms. Smith’s play, House Arrest, explores the mythic role that the presidency has played throughout American history. She performed the play at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York City in the spring of 2000. The play was workshopped at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in the spring of 1998 and at the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue in the summer of 1998. It was performed, with Ms. Smith and a cast, at the Taper in April of 1999 and in a pre-impeachment version at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1997.
As part of her preparation for House Arrest, Ms. Smith spent time both in Washington, D.C. and on the 1996 campaign trail, talking with a wide range of political players, historians, journalists and others. She attended both the Democratic and Republican conventions and wrote about them for Newsweek magazine. Ms. Smith also had the opportunity to interview President Clinton and former Presidents Bush and Carter.
Ms. Smith’s book, Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines, is based on her observations and impressions of her time in Washington and on the road. Her newest book is Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts — For Actors, Performers, Writers and Artists of Every Kind, which the actor Martin Sheen called, “A practical manual for any artist as well as a powerful reminder of how we can and should live through our art.” Her other books include publications of her plays Fires in the Mirror, Twilight, House Arrest, and Piano. Smith’s articles and other writings have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, O Magazine, A Public Space, Essence, and The Drama Review.
In 1997, Smith became the Ford Foundation’s first Artist-in-Residence. During this time, and with funding from Ford, Smith founded and directed the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, a three-year experiment that was held from 1998-2000, at Harvard University. The Institute now enters its second phase, which will center on the dissemination of materials about things learned so far. The Institute is dedicated to supporting the development of works of art that deal with social issues in a cross-disciplinary atmosphere that includes artists, scholars, and audiences.
Ms. Smith has been awarded honorary degrees from Northwestern, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, Holy Cross, and Cooper Union (forthcoming). Currently she is a tenured professor in the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and she is affiliated with the NYU School of Law. Prior to this, she was the Ann O’Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford University where she taught from 1990 – 2000. She has also taught at Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Southern California, and from 2001 - 2004, was Artist-in-Residence at MTV Networks.
In film, Smith has played roles in Ivan Reitman's Dave, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married and Philadelphia, Peter Berg's The Kingdom, Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, Christopher Columbus’ Rent, and Rob Reiner's The American President. On television, she has a recurring role on the new Showtime series Nurse Jackie, played National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s The West Wing, and appeared in a recurring role in the acclaimed ABC series, The Practice. She also co-starred in the CBS drama, Presidio Med, a series by the award-winning producing-writing team of NBC’s ER.
Her most recent play Let Me Down Easy, premiered at the Long Wharf Theatre in January 2008. Its subject is the resilience and vulnerability of the human body. The play was inspired by Ms. Smith’s visiting professorship at the Yale School of Medicine, where she presented a performance for medical ground rounds called Rounding It Out (2000). As part of her preparation for Let Me Down Easy, Smith traveled to Rwanda to interview survivors of the Genocide and to Uganda and South Africa to do research on the effects of the AIDS pandemic. She also interviewed victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the largest and most prestigious awards in the arts, in 2013.
She is currently researching a new play she is writing called The Americans at the Center for American Progress as Artist-in-Residence. A native of Baltimore, she lives in New York City, where she is on the board of the Museum of Modern Art and chairs the museum’s Committee on Film.