Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Week of 8.11.06

Anna Deavere Smith on Art and Politics

What role do and should artists play when it comes to social critique and commentary? NOW's David Brancaccio sits with award-winning playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith to discuss an artist's responsibility in a world wracked by war.

Widely known for her realistic portrayal of National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on NBC's The West Wing, Smith's one-woman shows — inspired by interviews with activists, politicians, and prison inmates — have set her apart as one of theater's most electrifying performers, one who's not afraid to get political.

Her mission to translate art into social commentary about race, poverty, and injustice has raised both her profile and her impact. "It's my experience that when things are upside down, there is an opening for a person like me," Smith told NOW.

"I think when things fall apart, [as an artist] you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together."

About Anna Deavere Smith

Program Resources
» Video
» Listen to this show [mp3]
» Transcript
» Print
Actor, playwright and university professor, Anna Deavere Smith's has managed to build a varied and respected career. When one reviews her work and list of achievements it's hard not to wonder: how does she do it?

As a renowned playwright and performer, Smith has created a body of theatrical works for nearly two decades in which she explores the American character and its multifaceted identity. The subjects of her performances range from the 1991 clash between Jews and blacks in Crown Heights, Brooklyn to the role that the presidency has played throughout U.S. history.

Her one-woman shows have helped redefine modern theater with The New York Times calling her "the ultimate impressionist: she does people's souls." In 1996, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Smith their prestigious fellowship saying she "has created a new form of theatre — a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie."

Her play "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," was the runner-up for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize earning Smith an Obie award along with other accolades. The performance was broadcast on PBS as part of "The American Playhouse" series.

"Twilight: Los Angeles," which examined the civil unrest following the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, received critical acclaim on Broadway and earned Smith two Tony nominations, as well as numerous other honors. The play was also broadcast as a presentation of Thirteen/WNET's drama series "Stage on Screen."

Smith has acted in a number of television shows, including a recurring role on the NBC show "The West Wing." She has also acted in a number of films such as "Dave," "The American President," "Philadelphia" and "The Human Stain."

Smith became involved in the 1996 presidential elections while preparing to write the play "House Arrest," about the America's presidents. She spoke to a wide range of political players, journalists and historians and attended both the Democratic and Republican conventions, which she helped cover for Newsweek magazine.

Her book "Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines," is based on her observations of the workings of Washington. Most recently she authored "Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts," in which she talks about the joys and pains of being an artist and gives advice to a new generation of artists and performers on how to thrive in the arts.

Smith founded and directed the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, a three-year experiment that was held at Harvard University from 1998-2000. The institute is now entering into a second phase, according to Smith, with the intention of igniting a new generation of artists "to pose powerful questions about the state of our world and the ever evolving human condition."

Smith is a tenured professor at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University and teaches courses on the art of listening at the NYU School of Law. She has also taught at Stanford University and the Yale School of Medicine.

A native of Baltimore, she currently lives in New York City.