Fresh Black Girls: Anna Deavere Smith!
Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith has the name recognition of a black c-lister but the accomplishments of a black American legend. You probably recognize her best from her recurring role as Nancy McNally on The West Wing, as Mrs. Silk in The Human Stain (the story of a young man, Coleman Silk, who passes for white his entire life), from last year’s Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married, or as the secretary in Philadelphia who testified that her earrings were considered “not American,” by the xenophobic/homophobic law firm that Tom Hank’s character was suing for wrongful termination. Her acting style is extremely accurate, genuine, concerned, and quietly racially transgressive. She doesn’t play ‘black’ characters, she plays human characters that happen to be black. Even in The Human Stain, her portrayal of a woman whose son chooses to pass as a white man comes to life more strongly than that of the son himself as she negotiates with herself to accept his rather insulting choice.
Of course, Smith’s screen performances barely do her justice and she has a stage career as a playwrite and actor to prove it. During the 1990’s she wrote and performed in over a dozen shows, most notably earning two Tony nominations (Best Actress and Best Author) for “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for 1991’s “Fires in the Mirror,” dealing with the Crown Heights Riot. She played multiple characters in both of these productions and tackled sensitive racial and political issues with a human, yet academic, aplomb in the challenging “documentary theater” style. Speaking of academics, did you know that Anna Deveare Smith teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of Performing Arts and before that was a professor in Stanford’s Drama department for ten years? She has also written two books, 2000’s Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics and in 2006 Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts-For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind. I could write pages about the productions, articles, and honorary degrees associated with Anna Deavere Smith’s name – she is so renaissance, so official, and so fresh black girl that everyone should know her! Right now she is revving up for “Let Me Down Easy,” a stage production tacking the health care debate (she will be playing numerous characters again, including cyclist Lance Armstrong), and you should also check for her in Edie Falco’s upcoming Showtime series “Nurse Jackie” this June. For now, watch Anna Deavere Smith drop knowledge through performance in this excerpt from her show “Four American Characters.”