While many may recognize actress Anna Deavere Smith from her part as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on television's "The West Wing," they might not be as familiar with her other roles-that of playwright, New York University professor and author. Smith-also known for her acting roles in such films as "Philadelphia," "Rent" and "The American President"-has been hailed by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in American theatre."
Her penchant for tackling topics such as social responsibility, racism and community-building through her one-woman shows prompted APA President Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, to invite her to give the keynote address at APA's Annual Convention in New Orleans, Aug. 10-13. Smith's work is a unique blend of journalism, performance art and social commentary: Onstage, she recreates tape-recorded interviews she's done with people from every walk of life-including prominent political figures and celebrities-and organizes them around a central, timely theme such as racial tension. Her convention presentation will blend an oration that addresses Koocher's presidential themes of diversity and building stronger families with the true-to-life characterizations that make up her critically acclaimed shows. And Smith will bring the meeting's locale into her performance by including insights from her recent interviews with city residents affected by Hurricane Katrina.
"She's a very accomplished person-it is fascinating to watch her work," says Koocher, who has seen Smith perform at Simmons College, where he serves as dean. "Her art speaks to the issues that are so important today."
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When she's not teaching acting at New York University as a tenured professor in the Tisch School of the Arts, Smith collects stories. In an effort to explore American character and diversity, she travels the world to interview people of all ages, occupations, cultures and religions, including such prominent figures as President Bill Clinton, oral historian Studs Terkel and former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates.
Smith then recreates her interviews on stage, weaving together portrayals of sometimes as many as 40 people in a performance. In 1992, she wowed critics with her one-woman play "Fires in the Mirror," which tackled tension between the black and Jewish communities in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn the year before. She followed up that success with "Twilight: Los Angeles" on the 1992 Los Angeles riots-which earned her two Tony-award nominations-and 2000's "House Arrest" on the American presidency. To write "House Arrest," Smith lived in Washington, D.C., for several years to trail the political players and journalists of the 1996 presidential campaign.
Her creative process is simple: "I listen,"she says. "I listen for a place linguistically that a person is struggling to express himself or herself, and that is what I choose to learn and embody."
She uses her tape-recorded interviews to fine-tune each person's language and dialect and relies on her memory to tackle their mannerisms. "What teaches me even more is when I get on stage and expose it to the audience," she adds. "That is the moment that the character really starts to knock on the door of my unconscious."
Critics praise her mimicry and uncanny ability to transform herself on stage through movement and gesture into a menagerie of characters.
"She performed Studs Terkel and got the gravely voice down perfectly, then quickly switched to a perfect Anita Hill," recalls Koocher of her performance at Simmons College. "She had the text and content of each person, their voice, their mannerisms, just right."
Smith will link her talk to the convention's New Orleans locale by sharing her interviews of the city's residents after Hurricane Katrina. Smith traveled to the area twice in October to interview people about their trauma and loss. That project, and recent interviews she's conducted in postgenocide Rwanda, have blown wide open her understanding of how people of diverse cultures experience trauma differently.
"When I was in Rwanda...cultural assumptions were useless," she says. Everything she felt she knew about trauma didn't seem to apply to what these people had experienced, she adds, and the experience prompted her to consider the vast challenges ahead for mental health professionals who are tackling trauma around the globe.
On the home front, she sees similar openings for psychologists in building greater community among Americans.
"So much of the talk in society is about 'What is right for me?'... 'Am I being fulfilled?'" says Smith. "I think that's a dead end and not helping to construct community. We need to find ways to negotiate our place and how to think about what you are giving someone else."
Smith's most recent projects include her book "Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers and Artists of Every Kind" (Vintage Press, 2006). She is also writing the screenplay of the Pulitzer-prize winning novel "The Known World" (HarperCollins, 2004).Look for more on APA's 2006 Annual Convention in the next Monitor.