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Smith, Anna Deavere

Smith, Anna Deavere

September 18, 1950

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, playwright, performance artist, and actress Anna Deavere Smith, a 1996 recipient of the McArthur Foundation "Genius" grant, is noted for developing a unique style of performance art that blends traditional theatrical elements with meticulous journalism to provide social commentary from multiple points of view about controversial events. Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights Brooklyn and Other Identities (1991) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993), both one-woman shows that Smith premiered to rave reviews and toured around the world, were written as responses to American urban insurrections. The two plays explored themes of racial conflict and racial identity. For Fires in the Mirror, Smith received an Obie and a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Smith's characteristic writing technique involves interviewing people, seeking the "moment when most people say something that nobody else can say." Smith then selects portions of these interviews, arranges them into monologues and dialogues to tell a story, and ends by memorizing and imitating her interviewees' speech and behavior for performance before a live audience. In juxtaposing the thoughts and attitudes of distinctly different people, Smith's plays present a documentary-style crosssection of Americans from the 1980s and 1990s. In 1993, Smith was labeled by Newsweek magazine as "the most exciting individual in American Theater." Her technique evolved while teaching theater at Carnegie Mellon University (19781979). She has also taught theater in several of America's top dramatic art programs, including the University of Southern California (1982), New York University (19831984), Actors Conservatory Theater (1986), Stanford University, where she became the Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts in 1992, and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University since 2000. Smith's play House Arrest premiered in 1997. In 2000 she published the book Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics, and since 2000 she has worked as a scriptwriter for such television shows as The Practice and West Wing.

See also Drama; Identity and Race in the United States; Performance Art


"Anna Deavere Smith's House Arrest." NewYork Metro, February 10, 2004. Available from <>.

Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Theater Arts and Entertainment. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Performing Arts Journal, MaySeptember, 5051 (1995): 77.

Peterson, Jane T. and Suzanne Bennett. Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

f. zeal harris (2001)
Updated by publisher 2005

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