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SmartTalk: Anna Deavere Smith Closes the 2011 Series

May 31, 2011

Playwright, actress, and professor Anna Deavere Smith graced the State Theatre stage in New Brunswick last week to close the SmartTalk Connected Conversations series for 2011. I always thought of her as an actress knowing her work from The West Wing, The American President, and Dave. I was pleasantly surprised to find out Smith is a tenured professor at New York University AND a playwright. She has written and performed several one-woman plays, often about controversial topics.

Ms. Smith’s parents wanted her to go to an all-black college like they did. However, she was recruited by Beaver College who wanted some diversity in their school. Smith shared with us that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination had a major impact on her. She wanted to promote change and justice, but somehow found herself in acting classes (perhaps this is why she’s been in political dramas and comedies).

[when you’re acting] you can be whatever you want to be.

Smith figured out a way to make a change and explore justice through playwriting and acting. She’s interviewed thousands of people to get snippets for her plays. Her passion is people, how they speak, and how they express themselves.

The list is long of people who have influenced her. Her pediatrician, the First Lady, Michelle Obama, WNBA star Lisa Leslie, her students, her niece, Shubert, and Lorraine Lansbury came to mind, but she said there are so many more who have played a part in molding her.

The most important lessons that she’s learned and can pass along: decision-making in the face of profound ignorance; confidence being overrated, and never having enough information.

Last Tuesday’s performances included her signature documentary-styled dramas, including portrayals of former Texas governor Ann Richards, Maxine Green, Alexis Herman, and Carrington Marzette and her mother. Below is a video of her TEDtalks performance to give you a glimpse into her brilliant execution.

Anna Deavere Smith’s latest book is Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind, and she can be currently seen in the Showtime comedy Nurse Jackie.

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