Positive pressure: Anna Deavere Smith

February 7, 2013

Anna Deavere Smith, actress, playwright and professor of performance studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, does things a little bit differently inside the classroom.

Seated in a circle with a group of graduate students in a dance studio, sometimes with shoes and sometimes without, Smith encourages her pupils to get to know their fellow classmates. She tells them: pay close attention to their breathing, their bodily disposition, the ways in which breaks in speech happen. But unlike professors in most academic settings, Smith wants her students to leave with unanswered questions.

“The magic of the classroom is for me, for acting, a human laboratory,” Smith said. “Hopefully something happens in the classroom where you leave with a new question, something newly unsettled that you can then use as a spark for the work you’re going to do.”

Deavere, who is also an affiliate at the NYU School of Law, has successfully translated her love for theater into an educational tool. This accomplishment has spoken to students, professors and acclaimed artists.

On Feb. 13 the Tony-nominated actress will be named the 19th recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the arts. The award grants $300,000 to an individual who has contributed “to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”

In a statement released on Jan. 9, Rebecca Roberston, a judge on this year’s selection committee, praised Smith for her ability to combine theater with commentary and social activism.

“We selected performerwriter-teacher Anna Deavere Smith for creating and delivering work that allows us to assess current events and issues in a way that is immediate, brilliant and funny,” Roberston said. “Her words…inspire us to understand with wit, compassion and clarity…and to better appreciate the complexity of the human condition and how to improve it.”

Famous for her one-woman shows, Smith impersonates individuals undergoing social change in the hope of bringing to light problems relating to race, genocide and the debate over healthcare. Her work has even taken her to Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa where she interviewed people in hospital wards for her play Let Me Down Easy.

Growing up in a period of cultural upheaval of ‘60s-era Baltimore precipitated her interest in social change. Peace, racial identity and anti-war movements sprouted on her home turf as the United States fought in Vietnam, and segregated communities fought for equality. As emotionally charged and uninhibited citizens took to the streets to voice their concerns, Smith discovered it was the perfect time to perceive the true colors of individuals — even if the opportunity didn’t exist for Smith herself.

“I saw within my own racial community ways that there were divisions and notions of where you could go and not go and be and not be,” Smith said. “What that gave me was less a sort of political drive and more a sense of longing to want to explore the very place I’m told not to go.”

She describes her search as a way to explore the power of language and the relationship between speech and identity in order for people to claim their own place and dignity.

And with an eloquent voice and a sharp pronunciation, you can tell she thinks long and hard before speaking. Her pitch rises when she describes her classroom as magical and her speech slows when she speaks of her past. And her students, like first-year Tisch phD candidate Ethan Philbrick, describe her as approaching the classroom space with a certain rigor and fierceness.

Like her students, President Sexton shares the same sentiment. Back in the 80s, Smith’s work in theater caught the attention of Sexton who was one of many figures that played an instrumental role in bringing her to NYU.

“As Dean of the Law School, I thought it important that lawyers, our society’s communicators, learn to listen, especially to voices that are new to them,” Sexton said. “Anna has been remarkably effective in doing all that we hoped she would do and more.”

For Philbrick, who sat on the floor with Smith in the fall of 2011, his semester was something he had never experienced before.

“It’s not a class where you write a paper at the end…and have arguments about when needs to be done, but it is a class that explores what it might be to try and know people in a different way,” Philbrick said. “[Anna] gave us a toolbox for trying to live in the world.”

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 7 print edition. Kristina Bogos is features editor. Email her at kbogos@nyunews.com.

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