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.
Question: Do you have a personal philosophy?
Anna Deavere Smith: What I had was a question that occupied me for a very long time. So I can tell you what the question was, and I can tell you that even as I still practice around that question, it’s led me to another question that I don’t even know how to work on.
But the question I’ve been trying to answer since the first time I ever picked up a Shakespearean text to speak it under the gaze of an authority on Shakespeare. I had spoken some Shakespearean words in other informal ways; but the first time anybody was sort of ever listening to me attempt to speak in Shakespeare was in 1972, or something like that.
And so the question that came from that was, “What is the relationship of language to identity?” And that’s what you and I have been talking about. And that question has occupied me for a long time.
And now I have a new question, which is, “What is the gap between understanding and action? And what does it take to bridge that gap?” And I don’t know the answer to it. That’s the question that I suspect will occupy me now for some years.
Questions: What might the answers be?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well, I think some of the answers have to do with what I was talking about before, which is that all of us see reality through the lens of our experience. So that means if we would like to do something new, we have a problem because we can’t even see clearly how to do it. We can only see how we did it before.
So we’d like to do something now perhaps more challenging and more interesting and do it in a new way; but we only have our old eyes. And I think when you have our old eyes, we have our old tools. So that’s on a personal level.
And then you know, on a social level it’s the same thing. And our leaders often have those old tools, and we look to them to tell us how to change our lenses. They can’t always. Sometimes they can, but they can’t always.
Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007