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: Is there any person you look to most for inspiration?
Anna Deavere Smith: Many people in many forms. Some of the people are dead. I hold Schubert dear. I hold Picasso dear. I hold Lorraine Hansberry dear. I hold Shakespeare dear. I hold Edward P. Jones, who wrote a marvelous novel called “The Known World” about a black man who owned slaves. In fact black people did own slaves. I mean I read his writing, and I hold him dear. I hold Jesse Norman dear. I hold Ed Ruscha dear. I hold William Kentridge, the South African print maker and artist dear. I hold Barney Simon, who ran the Market Theatre – a theater that helped bring apartheid down – dear. I hold John O’Neil, who was a centerpiece of the theater called the “Free Southern Theater” that actors did plays in the South when they were campaigning to get the vote, and they got shot at. They got sent to jail. I hold them dear. Aaron Sorkin, I hold him dear. The list goes on and on and on. And some of my students, you know, who are trying very hard to do new things. I hold them dear.
Question: How has Shakespeare influenced your work?
Anna Deavere Smith: I mean he first and foremost brings a very, very complex study of the human condition. And he can make you laugh and he can make you cry. And he can make you consider political realities in new ways. And he never dies. It’s always relevant.
But for me, what was important about Shakespeare was the fact that it all was in the words. All the action was in the words. All of the humanity he was trying to share was in words. And in fact, in words that were designed in a certain way. So I was interested in the design of Shakespeare’s words, and how that design led to anybody saying those words – a profound and deep understanding about the human being they were portraying.
And in fact that led me directly to thinking that if I were to study the words of a so-called common walking man, and treat it and study it the way that I treated and studied Shakespeare, that I would find something inside of what we call a commonplace person which could be on the stage. And not really in that way that you say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” but that someone in the course of an hour would come upon something that was so meaningful to them that it could be heroic; and that it could capture the attention of an audience. And so pretty much, Shakespeare led me right to my experiment.
Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007