One-woman show

03-07-05_image-1_thumb 1.jpgWith wild curly hair and sleek black slacks, playwright, actress, and NYU professor Anna Deveare Smith told personal stories about race and gave acting tips to about 40 students in the Reynolds Club’s cozy third-floor theater. On campus as the first Presidential Fellow in the Arts, Smith—known for playing National Security Adviser Nancy McNally on the West Wing but who’s also been nominated for a Pulitzer, won Obie awards, and received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship—held the afternoon conversation before a Mandel Hall evening performance last Tuesday.

During the talk Smith told about having a “pleasant” conversation with a cabdriver in her hometown New York when he suddenly yelled “Nigger!” at a truck driver blocking his way. Smith, who is African American, said, “You shouldn’t talk like that.” First of all, she said, “you could get killed.” Second, “I don’t think you have any idea what my people have suffered and done for this country so people from all over”—including the driver, whose nationality she couldn’t pinpoint—“can come to this country.” The driver apologized profusely. But for Smith the incident demonstrated that U.S. race relations are far from fixed, especially when she told her Romanian doorman the story and his well-meaning response was, “And where is he (the cabdriver) from?”

Smith performs monologues based on the thousands of people she’s interviewed, from Anita Hill to a Korean shopkeeper whose store was destroyed in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, using the person’s exact words and mimicking his or her voice and mannerisms (her Studs Terkel is dead-on). When she first started performing in the 1980s, she said, “I was very uptight about all of this.” Unlike many black artists, she didn’t write about “my kitchen” from her Baltimore childhood or growing up in segregation. Instead she wrote sympathetic Jewish and black characters in Fires in the Mirror, a play about the violence that erupted in Crown Heights, New York, after a Hasidic driver hit and killed a 7-year-old black boy. Because her work hasn’t followed the traditional black artist’s path, she said, black audiences and media have been ambivalent toward her. But she believes African American intellectuals, rather than drifting to area studies or “the black table,” should “make it hard for people to find you.”

By A.M.B.


Anna Deveare Smith (left) and discussion moderator Jacqueline Stewart, associate professor of English language & literature, take questions in the Reynolds Club third-floor theater.

Photo by Dan Dry

March 7, 2005