Photo: Robin Holland

Anna Deavere Smith


Anna Deavere Smith’s career covers mainstream culture as well as academia. Credited with creating a new form of theater, her work combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance. The New York Times called her “the ultimate impressionist, she does people’s souls.”

Her newest play is Let Me Down Easy. In 90 minutes, she becomes a rodeo bull rider, a New Orleans doctor, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, cyclist Lance Armstrong, and former supermodel Lauren Hutton, among others, each talking about life, illnesses, and mortality. To prepare, the actress interviewed more than 300 people and condensed her material into 20 characters. The performance grew out of her visit to Yale Medical School, where she’d been invited to interview doctors and patients and bring their stories to life.

For her work in theater, she has won numerous awards, among them two Obies, two Tony nominations and a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. She was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for her play Fires in the Mirror, which examined a 1991 race riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when racial tensions between African-American and Jewish neighbors exploded. She is also the author of the play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the riots following the Rodney King verdict, and House Arrest. Her books include Talk to Me and Letters to a Young Artist. Her television work includes performances on The West Wing, The Practice, and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. Her films include The American President, Philadelphia, Dave, The Human Stain and Rachel Getting Married.

She has been awarded many honorary degrees including those from The Juilliard School, Wesleyan University, Haverford College, Cooper Union, and Northwestern University. A professor at New York University, she is also founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, a center for artistic excellence addressing social change. She serves on the boards of the Museum of Modern Art and the Aspen Institute.