Anna Deavere Smith

Honorary Fellow

Anna Deavere Smith became known in the late 1980s and 1990s for developing a particular form of documentary theatre. Looking at events from multiple points of view, Smith’s theatre combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance (she plays all the characters herself). Her plays include Fires In the Mirror about race riots in Brooklyn (this was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize), Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (about the race riots in Los Angeles following the police beating of Rodney King; nominated for two Tony Awards), House Arrest (about American politics and presidents) and Let Me Down Easy (about the US healthcare system).

Professor Deavere Smith’s most recent play and film, Notes from the Field, look at the vulnerability of youth, inequality, the criminal justice system, and contemporary activism. The New York Times named the stage version of Notes from the Field among The Best Theater of 2016 and Time magazine named it one of the Top 10 Plays of the year. HBO premiered the film version in February 2018. It was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London. She is the author of two books, besides her plays: Talk to Me (Anchor, 2001) and Letters to a Young Artist (Penguin 2006).

Smith is University Professor at New York University where she teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts, and where she is also the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. In 2009, Smith was artist in residence with the Center for American Progress, and in Spring 2012, Smith was the first artist-in-residence at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco where she was commissioned to write and perform the play, On Grace.

Smith has been the recipient of many awards. She received a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant’ in 1996. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. She was the recipient of the prestigious 2013 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for achievement in the arts. In 2015, she was named the Jefferson Lecturer, the USA’s highest honor in the humanities. In 2017, she was the recipient of the Ridenhour Courage Prize, and of the George Polk Career Award in Journalism. She has received honorary degrees from 25 different universities and colleges, including Yale in 2014, and the University of Oxford in 2020 – which (given the Covid-19 situation) she will receive in 2021. We look forward to welcoming her to college at that time.

Smith has also done television and film work in the USA. She currently co-stars in the new ABC / Shonda Rhimes series, For the People and the hit ABC series Black-ish. She previously starred as Gloria Akalitus on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, and the National Security Advisor on NBC’s The West Wing. Films include The American President, Rachel Getting Married, Philadelphia, Dave, Rent, and The Human Stain.

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