Anna Deavere Smith

Panel Discussion

Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Panel Discussion

Playwright, actor, activist. Smith explores issues of race, community and character in America. She was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” Fellowship for creating “a new form of theater—a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.” In 1998 she founded, along with the Ford Foundation, The Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue.

Event Details

2006 - 2007 Season

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Speaker Bio

A professor in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Anna Deavere Smith also teaches courses on the art of listening at the NYU School of Law. She was previously Artist-in-Residence at MTV Networks and Ann O’Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford University.

Following receipt of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship in 1996, she became the Ford Foundation’s first Artist-in-Residence. During that time, she founded and directed the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue at Harvard University, a three-year experiment dedicated to supporting the development of art that deals with social issues in a cross-disciplinary atmosphere that includes artists, scholars, and audiences. The Institute, now sited at NYU, is in its second phase, disseminating materials about its findings.

Smith’s work as playwright and actor has won her great respect. Her play Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities was runner-up for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize and earned her a Drama Desk Award and an Obie Award Special Citation. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 received two Tony nominations, an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, and a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics. She has appeared on film in Ivan Reitman’s Dave, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, Robert Benton’s The Human Stain, Christopher Columbus’ Rent, and Rob Reiner’s The American President. On television, she appeared in recurring roles on The West Wing and The Practice, and co-starred in Presidio Med.

In addition to her plays, she is the author of Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines and Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts – For Actors, Performers, Writers and Artists of Every Kind. She is currently developing a play about the resilience and vulnerability of the human body, inspired by her experience as Daniel James Visiting Professor at the Yale School of Medicine.

Discussion Topics

Developed by the Smith faculty team for her campus visit

(Talk to Me, p. 96)
You describe race as “a concern, as ‘matter’ is like fog in our country, or like floating anxiety. One moment we rest on our laurels—that things are better—after all people aren’t still being chased by dogs as they try to go to school. The next moment it’s the most ‘serious problem our nation has to face.'”

Later in the same passage you say that in academia people can “study blacks and other ethnicities, and never actually talk about race.”You say that professors in their need to “cover” the material don’t engage students complicated feelings about race. Do you think that discussions of these complicated feelings should be a major part of a student’s college experience? What is the best way to engage in these discussions?

What do you think an artist’s responsibility is in a democracy? Is it significantly different from a politician’s or a teacher’s or a baker’s?

(Talk to Me, p. 147)
You say that most people learn to adopt a persona in order to “interface with society,” and the more complex and diverse the society the more resilient the persona needs to be. Should we as educators encourage our students to develop an authentic self that risks being hurt or should we help them to develop a resilient persona?

Is it ethical to educate students within the isolated sanctuary of a campus, or should interaction with the larger community (local, national global) be a required component of a liberal arts education?

What are the most important skills needed if the global community is to be in a better place at the end of the 21st century than at the beginning?


Dr. Jennifer Cavenaugh, Warden Associate Professor of Theatre Arts & Dance

Dr. David Charles, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts & Dance