Anna Deavere Smith Biography

Start Your Free Trial

Download Anna Deavere Smith Study Guide

Subscribe Now


(Drama for Students)

In On the Road: A Search for American Character, the series of plays to which Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 belongs, Anna Deavere (Duh-veer) Smith set out, as she says, "to capture the personality of a place by attempting to embody its varied population and varied points of view in one person— myself.'' Her series is a work-in-progress, its aim being the isolation of the American character through the dramatization of its many voices, the "different people" who "are shaping it." But her quest is partly a voyage of self-discovery, too, a shaping of her own role as a black woman writer, actress, and teacher.

Anna Deavere Smith was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on September 18,1950, the oldest child of Deavere Smith and Anna Young Smith. Her father owned a coffee and tea business, and her mother was an elementary school principal. During her early years, Anna's upbringing was largely restricted to a segregated community, giving her few opportunities to meet the various kinds of people that she would later depict in her plays. However, she did sharpen one skill for which she seemed to have a natural gift—mimicry. That talent earned her a reputation as a bit of a mischief maker, though she never got in any serious trouble.

It was not until she attended Western High School that she began making friends with people of different ethnic backgrounds, especially the Jewish schoolmates whom she befriended. She has credited that school experience with giving her the sympathy necessary to depict persons with diverse ethnic and cultural heritages in her work. That sympathy remained latent but strong after she graduated from Western in 1967.

Smith continued her education at Beaver College in Glenside, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. She first studied linguistics, but grew increasingly restless with the academic regimen in the face of the domestic strife of the late 1960s. She did graduate from Beaver, but did not really begin to find her professional niche until she inadvertently began taking acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. While apprenticing as an actor and director in that city's theaters, Smith earned an M.F.A. from the Conservatory, then moved to New York, where she supported herself by working for KLM Airlines and taking bit parts in soap operas.

In 1978, Smith took a position as a drama teacher at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. It was there that she began developing her fundamental technique of characterization. She sought a way to free herself from the "method school of acting'' that stressed the internalization of a role through the process of identifying with the character. She turned, instead, to the more objective method of depicting real people, an idea that came to her when watching Johnny Carson interview a series of diverse guests on the Tonight Show. She began taping interviews to challenge her acting students with the task of impersonating the speech and verbal mannerisms of the interviewed subjects.

Smith's interview method and her interest in American diversity led, in 1983, to the start of her main work, On the Road: A Search for American Character. Smith has also pursued an acting and teaching career that has taken her to several cities and several schools, including New York University, Yale University, the University of Southern California, and Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, where she has served on the theater faculty since 1990. She has appeared in secondary roles in major films and taken her one-woman shows across America. She has also won several prizes and awards, including Tony and Obie awards and, in 1996, a much-coveted MacArthur Foundation fellowship.


(Drama for Students)

Smith was born September 18, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland. The daughter of an elementary school principal and a coffee merchant, she was the oldest of five children. Smith attended Beaver College, outside of Philadelphia, from 1967 to 1971, and after graduating she became interested in the Black Power movement, moving to San Francisco in part to participate in social and political agitation. While living in San Francisco, she began to take classes at the American Conservatory Theatre, where she earned an MFA in 1976, and then she moved to New York City to work as an actor. Smith then began a professorial career teaching at universities, including Yale, New York University, and Carnegie Mellon. She also began a unique, long-term project called On the Road: A Search for the American Character, made up of a series of plays that combine journalism with dramatic performance.

Smith’s first play/documentary for On the Road was produced in Berkeley, California, in 1983. She went on to write and perform two additional plays in the 1980s, but it was her play Fires in the Mirror (1992) that rocketed her into the spotlight. In 1993, Fires in the Mirror was published in book form, was a runner-up for a Pulitzer Prize, and was televised by PBS as part of the “American Playhouse” series. She has since written and performed four additional plays, including Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1993), which won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony Award.

Smith has also acted in television shows, including The West Wing, and movies, including The American President (1995). She was awarded a prestigious “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1996, and in 1998, in association with the Ford Foundation, she founded the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard (now at New York University) to address socially and politically conscious art. Smith continues to write, act, teach, and perform. She has taught at Stanford University, is a tenured professor at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, and is an affiliated faculty member at New York University School of Law.