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 you first become conscious of race?
Anna Deavere Smith:
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.
Recorded on: Aug 15, 2007