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: When did theater first spark your interest?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well I didn’t really become involved in the theater until after I got out of college. When I was a younger woman, for example, I wanted to be a linguist. And I thought that maybe there was some sort of job that I could have ultimately that would have to do with learning many languages and doing something about these things we’ve been talking about, how people don’t get along very well.
And it’s interesting that I wanted to learn other languages and take that into the world, because I could have said well, I wanted to follow on the heels of Martin Luther King and do something about race relations in this country. But I really had a desire to be in the world, and to try to do something about “tribalism”. And I thought that one way to do that--and I use “tribalism” in quotations--discord between groups. And I thought that language was a part of that somehow. So I guess I thought that being able to talk to one another, as trivial as that sounds, I think I really believed in that possibility as a young woman.
And when I was in college, a lot of things happened in this country that left many of us in kind of a quandary as to what we should do with ourselves and with the country. Martin Luther King was killed when I was in college. And so I went away to California with the notion that I would so something in social change. But by the time I got there, which was the early ‘70s, the movement was really over. People were just beginning to assemble themselves, I think, to become what became the Yuppies of the 1980s. So that was like over. Nobody was into questioning things anymore. There was a sense that people were just trying to put things back together.
And in that period, I happened to go to an acting class pretty much, kind of accidentally. And I thought, “Oh my goodness. Everyone’s changing.” So I thought this would be a great laboratory in which to study change with the expectation that I would then go ahead and do something about social change. But once I got that bug – not so much the bug of acting, I have to say, but more the bug of the study of it – the bug of the process of creativity really took me by storm and changed my life. And so in three years, I sort of redirected my goals completely.
Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007