Anna Deavere Smith is an actor, a teacher, a playwright, and the creator of an acclaimed series of one-woman plays based on her interviews with diverse voices from communities in crisis. She has won two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Fires in the Mirror. She has had roles in the films Philadelphia, An American President, The Human Stain, and Rent, and she has worked in television on The Practice, Presidio Med, and The West Wing. The founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, she teaches at New York University and lives in New York City.
Anna Deavere Smith: Well I was born in an all-black hospital, so that gives you a sense already that there was still such a thing as that. And I suppose there are in some places. So the town was, for all intents and purposes, a segregated town. My mother was in labor for five days. I’m not sure if we had been in a different hospital, if there would have been a kind of different situation.
But I sort of came down the birth canal and then turned back up. So I always had the feeling that maybe I saw something that I decided I’d just take a little bit longer coming along.
And I went to an elementary school that was also all – at the time – colored children, Negro children.
And a lot happened by the time it was time to go to junior high. And I went to a predominantly Jewish junior high and a predominantly white high school. But that wouldn’t have happened, for example, if I were five years older.
And I grew up, in many ways, in a different Baltimore than my mother and my father. And I think one’s past always comes and goes. But now in 2007, what I find myself often calling up about Baltimore is that the people that I grew up around were nice people. And so niceness has become very important to me now. And I find myself thinking about that sort of kindness, love of children, the importance of my church, kind of quest for fairness and justice in the nation as a whole. And I think about that a lot, and try on a daily basis to emulate some of that behavior in the way I go about my life.
Well I can’t remember not being conscious of race. I guess I’d have to have been pretty lingual, because even though most of the people around me were African-American people, there was still a sense when you went into other parts of Baltimore that there were White people.
Or for example, my maternal grandmother took my brother and I and enrolled us in a camp when I was eight and he was six. And everybody in that camp was white except for one African-American girl. My brother had blue eyes and blond hair, so people didn’t always know that he was black. And so, you know, I was very conscious in that camp of not being white, and I was eight years old then.
So I think it’s something that in my generation is pretty deeply ingrained. I don’t think that my niece, who is nine, has the same experience. She’s conscious, but I don’t think she’s self-conscious in the way that I was, because the message to us was that it was something that wasn’t necessarily that great. And so you had to count on the people in your family, your church, and the people who were closer to you to try to make sense of that.
Well actually in terms of listening to stories, the listening part, I think I have less of a problem with that because I’ve been doing it for a very long time. And as I say, I sit down with somebody and they could tell me the ceiling is falling. And I’m mostly listening to how they said the ceiling was falling, and I’m missing the point that the ceiling is falling. So I’ve really conditioned myself to go in and listen for what I’m listening for.
People always ask me sort of how do I not judge people. That becomes irrelevant for me, because I’m listening for such a specific thing when I go in. I think what’s harder is how do I train myself out of my habits in order to inhabit them and take on their habits? And that’s hard. And that comes from repetition.
My grandfather told me when I was a kid if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. And that’s really my acting technique in the sentence; it's this belief that if I take someone’s words and repeat them over, and over, and over, and over, and over again, eventually those words are going to hit my psyche in a place that I understand who they are, really understand it, which I wouldn’t understand upon reading it or hearing it for the first time. So I would say the work that really calls for that has to do with reenacting more than listening for the first time.
Recorded on: 08/22/2007