Magazine Interview

Word by Word

Anna Deavere Smith reflects on how art can create social change

By Marilyn Cooper

Spring 2023

Pulitzer Prize–nominated playwright,professor, and actress Anna Deavere Smith has been listening to America for nearly five decades. Since the 1980s, Smith has periodically traveled around the United States, interviewing people and then crafting their words into a series of groundbreaking plays. Smith calls her series On the Road: A Search for American Character. Each multivoiced solo drama bears witness to a particular event or theme in US history.

Washington Post critic Thomas Floyd has called Smith’s documentary-style plays “an empathetic alchemy of journalism and theater.” Smith’s works explore race, class, and urban conflict through a blend of social commentary, theatrical drama, and personal musings. Take her 1992 Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities. The play examines the August 1991 riots that erupted in Brooklyn after a car in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade accidentally killed a Black child and a Jewish scholar was fatally stabbed in retaliation. Smith interviewed more than a hundred people to create the piece and played twenty-six different characters in the original production, including rabbis, reverends, neighborhood residents, and political activists.

Just as she does on stage, Smith plays many different roles in life. She is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, originally based at Harvard University (1998–2000) and now at New York University, where she is also a professor of performance arts. Outside of the worlds of theater and academia, Smith is best known for her television roles, including as national security adviser Nancy McNally on The West Wing, a hospital administrator on Nurse Jackie, and US District Court clerk Tina Krissman on For the People.

Smith credits studying Shakespeare with giving her a deeper understanding of language and narratives. The Bard’s use of words to create complex characters and stories inspired both her desire to write and her artistic approach. In the classroom, she uses pedagogical exercises that promote self-understanding and awareness to instill a similar passion for storytelling in her students.

Smith describes this approach to teaching as a narrative in which students go through a process that allows them to explore their own life stories. She hopes that understanding their own narratives will help her students form stronger connections with other people—whether that be in a relationship, during a job interview, or as part of a leadership role. She also wants her students to consider their motivations for wanting to be an artist. She asks them to question whether they want to attract attention or if instead they want to change how their audience sees society and its problems.

Smith also hopes that her plays will help advance social change. She has said that she creates her pieces with the aim of “sparking a conversation, of making change possible.” Ultimately, as her conversation with Liberal Education demonstrates, she is trying to transform the world, one word at a time.

How can the fine arts, especially theater, help diverse populations understand each other?

Theater has done just that for many years, and movies do that as well. I think this is how we learn about each other. Many plays by and about Blacks have done exactly that. If you go back to the 1950s, Lorraine Hansberry’s watershed play, A Raisin in the Sun, exposed a lot about how Black folks lived at that time in Chicago. And right now, on Broadway, there are at least five different plays that deal with race. Every time we engage in this way, we open ourselves up and become more curious.

Considering the current political landscape, in terms of faculty and students, why does diversity matter in fine arts education?

The attack is now on content. We are in a serious time in which there are ever more blatant disruptions of [free expression] and more censorship than we could have imagined. In response to that, I think and hope that artists will be even bolder about getting their stories and work out there.

How would you describe your approach to teaching?

I tell my students that I want to be the best possible audience for them. I listen to and watch them very carefully. Then I try to be in a conversation with them about what they’re attempting to communicate. Hopefully, by the end of the term, their work becomes both more crystallized and more diversely presented with greater color and urgency than when they began.

As a 2016–17 artist-in-residence at Santa Clara University, Smith gave talks and directed a student artistic production. (Joanne H. Lee/Santa Clara University)

Can you give an example of what your teaching approach looks like in practice?

I often use an exercise that was developed by theater director, producer, and educator Zelda Fichandler. I ask my students to go to a museum in person and walk around. They’re to look at the art until they see a piece that speaks to them. Then they contemplate that piece and produce their own work of art. It’s a fascinating experience for them.

You’ve described your teaching style as a “narrative.” What does that mean?

I ask my students to examine their personal mythologies. I want them to look at their personal truth, their origin story. It does not need to be real events that actually took place. A personal mythology represents something about you. It’s a parable that tells a story about you in a metaphoric way.

Early in your career, how did agents or companies respond to you as a Black female actress trying out for parts? Were they open to casting you?

No. I had a rough time when I first started out. In part, my problem was that I really didn’t look Black enough. As someone with an in-between skin color, I had an agent say she wouldn’t send me out on auditions because I might antagonize her clients. When I asked her what she meant by “antagonize,” she said, “Well, what will you go as? Will you go as Black, or will you go as White?” I had to put up with a lot of stuff like that. It’s different for young Black women now. I think there’s greater acceptance now that a wider variety of skin tones can represent people of color.

Are there enough parts out there for Black actors these days?

That’s a hard question. There are certainly more opportunities than there have been in the past, but no actor ever feels like there are enough parts. It’s more a question of what gets produced and what kinds of content are out there. There are certain screenwriters and producers, Shonda Rhimes for instance, who have done a lot to reimagine who can play different roles. People turning on the dial is the one thing that talks in Hollywood. Then the industry sees that there’s an appetite for that content.

Wesley T. Jones performs in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Smith conducted 320 interviews for the play, which explores the response to the Rodney King police brutality case. (Joan Marcus)

You are known for a documentary or “verbatim” theater style. What’s the value of storytelling as a form of communication?

Storytelling goes back to ancient times and is an elemental part of communication. Stories are often parables that carry meaning and impart lessons. I remember visiting Senegal, where the literacy rate is relatively low. I would see men telling a story to a group of absolutely enraptured children. I think the story is a deep part of human experience.

You’re a close observer of people and their languages. What’s the relationship between language and identity?

That’s the question that I started out trying to answer. One good thing about a hard question that has no answer—it keeps you working for a long time! I’ve found that in certain ways, it’s less about identity and more about how interesting a person’s language becomes when they are trying to describe something for which they have no words. This often happens when people are talking about catastrophic events.

When I attend rehearsals for the revival of my play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, I’m astonished by the richness of the language that characters use to describe the events that occurred in Los Angeles after a jury ruled that the cops on trial for beating motorist Rodney King were not guilty. I’ve learned that the unfinished sentence is especially interesting—sentences that are expressed in a different way from how they appear in books, with different rhythms, intonations, and exciting imagery. I’ve always been captivated by how original people are when they speak.

You do many interviews before writing your plays—320 for Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. How do you decide which ones to include?

It’s a long process that evolves from watching and discussing rehearsals. I’ll also hear people argue about what I’ve done during a performance or a rehearsal, and then go home and write another play. I almost never come to a rehearsal with the same play every day. Watching a rehearsal always causes me to go home and restructure and rewrite the play.

Elena Hurst performs in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. (Joan Marcus)

What are your goals in presenting a large range of experiences and viewpoints?

I hope I am offering the audience some experiences and viewpoints that they may not have considered. When I go into the field with a new project, I usually spend a few months doing four interviews a day. That’s more time than the average person is going to spend on any given subject. By doing that, I am trying to show different perspectives and different colors of the story. I hope that gives the audience an opportunity to reflect back on how they thought about an event or a type of person before they experienced the play.

Do you ever have a hard time getting people to talk?

Yes, and usually when that happens, I find a way to stop the interview. I’m looking for people who would scream a story from a mountaintop. That’s important for the theater because anything that happens on stage, even if it seems like normal talking from real life, actually has to have a bigger, stronger will to communicate. That’s what I’m looking for when I interview people. So, if someone doesn’t want to talk or if they’re overly self-conscious, I usually end the interview and move on. It’s not like the media or the traditional press where you see journalists running after people to get a comment. I need people who want to sit down and talk with me.

Your play Notes from the Field examines race, police brutality, and the lives of people who were incarcerated as youths. What’s the play’s main message?

The overall theme of Notes from the Field is about creating communities where everyone can thrive. In part, the play suggests that there’s a poverty-to-prison pipeline. It asks questions about our responsibility to create a world that is safe and engaging for all children and whether we truly want to have a robust democracy. We have come to rely on schools to help students transition from being children to responsible adults. But we now know that when some kids aren’t in school, they are in trouble—and some kids are being pushed out of school and into prison.

Are there ways that our educational system can help address the issues you raise in the play?

We must support our teachers and give them more resources. We need to view educators as people who can constantly revise what they’re doing depending on who they’re working with. I am fascinated with educational philosopher Maxine Greene. She viewed the classroom as a community where everybody can participate rather than as a hierarchy with teachers and the principal on top. We’ve gotten to the point where we have police officers in schools. We need smaller schools with wraparound services that help people. We also need to support parents and show them how they can participate in their children’s education. The bottom line is, we need a fair shake for more people before schools are going to get better.


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is associate editor of Liberal Education.