Anna Deavere Smith is “a national treasure,” said Professor Martha Umphrey as she introduced the actor and playwright in Buckley Recital Hall on April 13. Umphrey is director of the College’s Center for Humanistic Inquiry, which had invited Smith to campus to present a program titled Snapshots: Portraits of a World in Transition.

Smith, an actor and playwright, has spent years listening to people across the country from all walks of life, using Walt Whitman’s idea “to absorb America” as an inspiration for Snapshots. In Buckley, she transformed herself into some of these people, delivering monologues in their voices.

Anna Deavere Smith performing at Amherst College
Anna Deavere Smith performing in Buckley Recital Hall.

Speaking as Michael Tubbs, a mayoral candidate in Stockton, Calif., she described a visit to a first-grade class where he read a book about Martin Luther King Jr. and tried to move quickly through the page about King’s assassination. “One little boy raises his hand. ‘Mr. Tubbs, my uncle got shot.’” More kids raise their hands. Soon he learns that every student in the classroom knows someone who has been shot. “It’s prison or death,” Smith says as Tubbs, “no other options.”

Smith interviewed Tubbs as part of her effort to understand the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that refers to policies and practices that push at-risk kids out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system. These are “the kids who we throw away,” Smith said.

Among other portrayals, Smith took on the character of U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Speaking as the civil rights leader, she told of a meeting with a former Klansman who had come to seek his forgiveness: “'Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people who beat you on May 9, 1961. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?' I said, ‘I forgive you. I accept your apology.’ He hugged me; his son hugged me.” The lesson, said Smith as Lewis, is to “hold on, never give up, never give in.”

During a Q&A with the audience in Buckley, Smith said she doesn’t give people voice; they already have it. “I don’t believe that I can know what anybody is thinking,” she said. “All I can do is try to sing the song they’re singing.”