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.