March 22, 2016
For the last several years, Smith has listened to people across the country from all walks of life, using Walt Whitman’s idea “to absorb America” as an inspiration for “Snapshots.” To illustrate her goal of bringing “people across the chasms” of what she calls the “complex identities of America,” she performs portrayals of people she interviewed for the project during the course of her presentation, recreating a diversity of emotions and points of view on controversial issues.
“Anna Deavere Smith’s extraordinary plays and speaking engagements compel audience members to confront complex life issues about race, death and belonging presented through the eyes of her vivid, varied characters,” said Martha Umphrey, director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, which has brought the program to Amherst. “She literally enacts their viewpoints in ways that show us an ethics of listening, and the value of trying to inhabit the worlds of others – of standing in their shoes.”
In addition to appearances on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Smith’s TV credits include The West Wing, Black-ish and Madam Secretary. She has appeared in several films, including Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia and The American President. Newsweek has declared her “the most exciting individual in American theater.”
Smith is best known for crafting one-woman programs such as “Snapshots,” based on conversations with real people from all walks of life. Much of her work involves turning her interviews into scripts and transforming herself into an astonishing number of characters. Her productions include the plays Fires in the Mirror; Let Me Down Easy, which aired on PBS’ Great Performances in 2012; and the Tony-nominated Twilight: Los Angeles, a dramatization of the L.A. riots in the days that followed the Rodney King trial. These multi-character shows about American social issues helped win Smith a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellowship in 1996 for creating “a new form of theatre—a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism, and intimate reverie.” They also earned her the 2013 Dorothy & Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the arts, as well as the 2012 National Humanities Medal.
In 1997 Smith founded Anna Deavere Smith Works at Harvard. Now part of the Aspen Institute, where Smith is on the board of trustees, ADS Works “cultivates artistic excellence that embraces the social issues of the day.”
A University Professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and an affiliate with the NYU School of Law, Smith delivered the prestigious 2015 NEH Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities