Alley Theatre Awards ‘Nurse Jackie’ And ‘Blackish’ Star Anna Deavere Smith For Her Revolutionary Art Form

Alley Theatre Awards 'Nurse Jackie' And 'Blackish' Star Anna Deavere Smith For Her Revolutionary Art Form

Few performers can command a solo stage with captivating focus and commitment quite like Anna Deaver Smith.

His solo concerts, such as "Twilight. Los Angeles,” about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and “Field Notes,” about the school-to-prison pipeline, have become hallmarks of his work. He raised questions about social injustices and sought solutions in his career as a playwright, writer, teacher and actor.

Those unfamiliar with her stage appearances may recognize her from television with roles on The West Wing, Burse Jackie and as TV mom Tracee Ellis Ross on Black-ish.

When the Alley Theater opened its 76th season this fall, Smith received a lifetime achievement award. Past winners include Arthur Miller, John Houseman, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronin, Colin Dewhurst and Horton Foote.

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"What a wonderful work he has given us," said Rob Melrose, Alley's artistic director. "Anna has developed a method of storytelling that creates indelible ideas and memories. I saw with my own eyes how the technique was transformed for the actors. I wholeheartedly believe that Anna's approach to the game is what the world needs right now."

Smith created a new art form that is part journalism, part literature, part politics, and part comedy.

He conducted more than 320 interviews for "Twilight" and turned them into a show. He conducted more than 250 interviews with students, parents, teachers and administrators who were taken from school to prison for "Field Notes," a made-for-TV movie for HBO. In October, Prairie View A&M University hosted a screening of the film and a discussion with Smith.

"I'm what you might call a female runner," said Smith, 72, who is also a professor at New York University. “It's just a term people use to talk about men and women who are committed to the betterment of black people. It comes from growing up in a segregated environment with a desire for social justice."

Smith spoke to the Chronicle about his work and his latest project, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

H. Your body is so multi-dimensional. Would you say you're an anomaly?

I believe that my diverse career will be more of a reality for young artists in the future. It's virtually impossible for people to have a career, that's one thing. My feeling about young people, especially my students, is that they see themselves as entrepreneurs. They consider themselves capable of doing many things. It's rare that you can stay in the same program for 25 years. I was on a hit show called The West Wing and I think it only lasted seven or eight seasons, so you've been doing something else for eight years now.

H. Why is teaching so important to you?

A. Teaching has always been a part of my career since 1973, and I think it's just genetics. My mother is a teacher. Most of my aunts are teachers. I grew up surrounded by teachers, and it's something that has a genetic pull. It taught me to watch and listen, because when you're learning a new artist or performer, you have to think not only about what to say, but also when to say it.

Question. How do you find the subject matter for your plays?

A. Sometimes it crosses my mind. I'd like to take full credit for that, but before Field Notes, in the school-to-prison pipeline, it was a game about medical care. I actually did a lot of interviews for him at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It was in the mid-2000s when the head of internal medicine at Yale University School of Medicine invited me to come to Yale as a visiting professor. It made me angry. He wanted me to interview doctors and patients about hearing problems. I was really interested in what would become a much larger enterprise, seeing the body as vulnerable to doctors, to disease, to race, to war. Often these ideas come from other people who believe that theater can be useful in changing how people think about issues.

H. You do hundreds of interviews for the show. How does it work?

A. My projects always start with me not understanding something. I try to cast a big net to figure it out, and it leads to different ways of looking at things. Anything that helps a large and diverse group of people in an audience connect with a social issue is my business.

H. Many people think of the pandemic as a time to write a book or work on another creative project. What are you doing?

A. I wrote and started changing careers. I decided after Field Notes, I wanted to get a commission. I want to write for others. I don't want everything to be generated by me. I want to write in a new way for other actors, I want to try a new way. For example, this piece about Ella Fitzgerald was not my idea. Someone else commissioned me to write the play. I'm also working on a play about Billie Jean King. Someone asked me to do this. So he takes someone else's idea and says: "Okay, I'll see what I can do with it."

H. Tell me about your relationship with Prairie View A&M University President Ruth Simmons.

A. I met him when he was Chancellor of Princeton, and he was instrumental in persuading me not to leave academia. I will go. He convinced me that I should stay in academia because I couldn't combine it with my work as an artist, and he convinced me by boosting my ego by saying: "It's hard to do what you do. you are a woman, you are an actress, and it will be very difficult for you to get a job title, but you have to do it to be a role model for others.

H. Do you think theater is getting better at covering people of color?

A : In terms of representation, questions usually arise after a tragedy, like George Floyd, so we need to try to advocate for better resources, more opportunities, and new ways of thinking about ourselves.

H. What is the next step?

A. I'm doing a play about Ella Fitzgerald. I didn't do any interviews other than talking to a few people who already knew him. But this is a fictional drama. The Thing With Mrs Fitzgerald is not a great biography of Ella Fitzgerald. It's true, and it really is a treasure hunt in the sense of trying to piece things together to create a piece that will be a portrait of her and hopefully do justice to her incredible talent.

H. Do you have new TV shows or movies?

A. I don't have it now. I told my agent I wouldn't be available because I knew I was going to be tied up with this writing project right now, but hopefully I'll get out there and people won't forget who I am.

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