Chapter 8: American Drama

Anna Deavere Smith
1950-

© Paul P. Reuben
June 15, 2014
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  Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |  

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Source:
Barnard News 

Primary Works 

On the Road: A Search for American Character, 1983; Aye Aye Aye I'm Integrated, 1984; On Black Identity and Black Theatre, 1990; From the Inside Looking In, 1990; Hymn (ballet), 1993; Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, 1993; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1994; House Arrest, 1997; Piano, 2000

Plays in Progress. New York: Theatre Communications Group,1989.

"Anna Deavere Smith: Actress and Playwright." Current Biography. (Sept 1994): 50-5.

Talk To Me: Listening Between the Lines. NY: Random House, 2000.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Abel, Elizabeth, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen. eds. Female Subjects in Black and White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997.

Connor, Kimberly R. "Negotiating the Differences: Anna Deavere Smith and Liberation Theater." Goldner, Ellen J. and Henderson-Holmes, Safiya. eds. Racing and (E)Racing Language: Living with the Color of Our Words. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001.

Hoeveler, Diane L. and Janet K. Boles. eds. Women of Color: Defining the Issues, Hearing the Voices. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

Rubino, Cecilia. "Anna Deavere Smith." Eisler, Garrett. ed. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Fifth Series. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Smith, Cherise. Enacting Others: Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011.

| Top | Anna Deavere Smith: A Brief Biography"

A Student Project by Amanda Kirchner

As an actor, director, and critically acclaimed playwright, Anna Deavere Smith has not even begun to scratch the surface as to the width and depth of her multi-faceted talent. Her life long mission to discover the authentic voice in American culture has led her to create a series of productions known collectively as "on the road: A search for American Culture." Her style, a mix of journalism, realism, and production, cohesively ties together the every day memories and admissions of people across the country, knowing no racial boundary or prejudice. Her far-reaching goal as she describes it is to, "[S]earch for American character. My search was specifically to find America in its language.  I interview people and communities about the events of our tie, in the hope that I will be able to absorb America." (Smith 12)

Born September 18, 1950 in the highly segregated area of Baltimore, Maryland, Smith became fascinated with language and people's personal stories early on, often begging her neighbors, parents, and grandparents to tell well-worn stories over and over again. This thirst for knowledge carried her into her academic career where she earned a B.A from Beaver College in 1971. Setting out with $80 and a suitcase, she headed for California and the American Conservatory Theatre where she earned her M.F.A. in 1976. At a party one night she struck up a conversation with a professional linguist named Julia and began to discuss her desire to change the 'how-to' method of acting so many people were proclaiming, and trying to get to the heart and soul of language and the people it represented. Her goal: to find the places in peoples individual patterns of language where language fails them, and in owning those moments, actually being able to be that person. Julia gave her three questions that have since become the basis for the ever-reaching American character study Smith has embarked on. One: Have you ever come close to death? Two: Do you know the circumstances of your birth? Three: Have you ever been accused of something you did not do?

Beginning her research with these three questions, Anna Deavere Smith set out in 1979 to find America, and in 1983, she produced her first play based on her interviews and research, "On the Road: A Search for an American Character." Each play she has created, most one-woman shows, have fallen under this title and become part of an on-going series for her. Three more plays were to follow; Aye, Aye, Aye, I'm Integrated in 1984, along with On Black Identity and Black Theatre and From the Inside Looking In produced in 1990. Her first critical success in the series came however in 1992 with Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. Based on interviews she conducted after the race riots in Crown Heights following the death of a young black boy and the murder of a Hassidic student, the one-woman play garnered critical acclaim from the theatre community earning Smith a Drama Logue Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Her follow-up performance to such a successful piece was the even more highly praised: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 first produced in 1994. Following her traditional mixture of theatre and journalism, Smith based Twilight on interviews conducted after the Rodney King trial and beating of Reginald Denney. Within the play she takes on such diverse roles as a male Korean grocery owner, a black gang member, and white college student. Smith received two Tony nominations, an Obie, a Drama Desk, and two NAACP theatre awards for Twilight. Most recently Smith produced House Arrest in 1997, performed by a multi-racial cast trained in her specific method of acting.  In 2000 she produced her second multiple cast play, Piano.

Smith's list of credits and acclaim are not solely limited to her playwrighting abilities. As an actress she has appeared in such films as Dave, The American President, and the Oscar nominated Philadelphia. She has also co-authored a ballet entitled Hymn with Judith Jamison. Currently she can be seen on the CBS medical drama Presidio Med as Dr. Letty Jordan, and NBC's The West Wing, as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally. Among Smith's many achievements she was named as the Ford Foundation's first Artist-In-Residence, and was given the 1996 "Genius" Award by the MacArthur Foundation.

Hailed as a possible savior for modern theatre (Lloyd) Anna Deavere Smith's distinctive style and mix between documentary and performance has swept through the theatre world like a fresh wind. The explanation, as Carol Lloyd notes, is relatively simple:

Not only did she make work that reflected the broad canvas of America, but also she did so without the use of massive casts, tendentious dialogue and high-art pretense. Not only was she an African-American woman, she was talking about racial issues freed from the blinders of identity politics. Not only was she a serious experimenter in the field of theater, but she was -- of all things &endash; entertaining […] In portraying real people from divergent backgrounds, Smith depicts the hot pot of American culture that refuses to melt. Her technique is so seemingly simple that it is a wonder more actors-turned-solo-performers have not followed in her footsteps.

               Though some of her fellow actors see her as a sell-out, exchanging real theatre for limousines and backstage chats with heads of state (including Presidents Carter and Clinton) Smith has above all things, kept true to her goal of discovering America in its language. Each of her plays and even her roles as an actress portray consistently deal with issues of race, gender, and language, commenting as Nancy McNally in an episode of the West Wing, "I'm the only woman on a conference call. Delaney can't tell when it's me talking. Do I have a bizarrely androgynous voice?" (Sorkin)

               Smith, much like her theatrical productions, is a multi-faceted person. Private about the more personal aspects of her life, her most recent work is an autobiography of her time spent researching "House Arrest" in Washington D.C. Among her many credits as writer, director, producer, and actor, she is also a professor, teaching at such prestigious universities as Carnegie-Mellon, NYU, USC, Yale, and Stanford. She currently lives in San Francisco.   

Works Cited

Lloyd, Carol. "Voice of America." Salon.com. 1998. http://dir.salon.com/people/bc/1998/12/08/deaveresmith/index.html?pn=1 (1 March 2003).

"Somebody's Going to Emergency, Somebody's Going to Jail" Sorkin: The West Wing. Prod. John Wells, Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin. NBC. KCRA, Modesto. 28 February 2001.

Smith, Anna Deavere. Talk To Me: Listening Between the Lines. New York: Random House, 2000.

Weaver, Angela E. "Anna Deavere Smith." Women of Color Women of Words. 2003. http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~cybers/smith2.html (1 March 2003).

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Anna Deavere Smith." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/smith.html (provide page date or date of your login).

 

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