For the past four decades, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has traveled the country, interviewing politicians, journalists, and prison inmates, among others. These characters later become fodder for her plays. “I was very influenced by something my grandfather said when I was little, which is, ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.’ In some ways I would say that I’ve been trying to become America one person at a time,” Smith says. “Everyone I talk to is drop-by-drop helping me increase my understanding.”
On Monday, Smith—who is known for her roles in the West Wing and Nurse Jackie—will perform several of her real-life characters for this year’s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center. Every year, the lecture celebrates the federal government’s highest honor for accomplishment in the humanities. The free event, which has featured cultural figures like Wendell Berry and John Updike in the past, gives speakers a platform to discuss their careers, ideas, and influences. Smith, a champion of stories told from the perspective of many, will use the stage to showcase her unique style of theater.
Smith’s monologues are drawn word-for-word from interviews—a form known as “verbatim theatre.” For the lecture, she had to narrow down thousands of recordings and select only a very few. “I just want us all to think about the best in what we are. I think of each one of these people as a champion of our values,” she says.
Smith’s most famous plays have focused on historical conflicts—like the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, or the schism between the Orthodox Jewish and black communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in the 1990s. Through her work, Smith explores the American desire to build a better country. “Even if they seem to be critical about something in our country, many of us believe that this more perfect union is possible,” she adds.
For her next venture—the Pipeline Project—Smith draws attention to another issue: the disproportionate number of young people of color who are suspended from school and later end up in prison. Statistics, she says, say “these young people will end up, at least for part of their lives, incarcerated,” she says. “What does that mean in terms of the talent we’re putting behind bars? What does it mean not just economically and politically, but what does it mean morally, spiritually?
“When I was growing up, there was a great belief in all of our potential, even though we couldn’t go certain places. I pretty much lived in and grew up in an almost entirely African American community,” Smith continues. “How did we lose that part of the dream?”
Though she has spent her career bringing light to racial and cultural issues, Smith says she’s still focused on working primarily as an actress and writer, rather than a policymaker. “As a theater artist I just want to draw attention” to these issues, Smith says.
Tickets for Smith’s lecture “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” are free, but reservations are fully booked. The National Endowment for the Humanities, who hosts the lecture, will release stand-by tickets at 7:20 pm the night of the lecture.