Actor, playwright and educator Anna Deavere Smith is this year’s Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. Deavere Smith accepted the award from President Ron Liebowitz in a packed Sherman Function Hall on Thursday.
Deavere Smith’s recent work involves the creation of over 15 one-woman shows based on hundreds of interviews she conducted around the country. She turns these interviews into scripts and performs as the interviewees, cutting out her follow up questions. The resulting show, “Notes from the Field,” won the 2017 Obie Award.
“Notes from the Field,” examines, among other themes, the school-to-prison pipeline and income inequality.
“We are honored to have Anna Deavere Smith as one of those courageous individuals who holds a mirror to our contemporary society and asks us to reflect along with her about how it might become more equitable and just,” said Liebowitz.
After remarks from Liebowitz, Deavere Smith was introduced by Professor Marya Levenson (ED), the Harry S. Levitan Director of Teacher Education.
Deavere Smith spoke about her recent work on “Notes from the Field” and her interview journey across America. “When I was a girl, my grandfather said, ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes you’… and so I’ve been going around America with a tape recorder for many, many years now, with this ridiculous idea that I could become America word for word,” Deavere Smith said. “And of course, I have not done that—but it’s kept me busy,” she continued to audience laughter.
Deveare Smith performed a few excerpts of her interview portraits, including one with lawyer Bryan Stevenson about the Equal Justice Initiative, his work with the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the hardships of representing clients who are on death row.
She also performed a piece based on an interview with a fifth grade teacher in Helsinki. Deavere Smith visited Finland to learn more about their advanced education system. After showing her a video of a police officer dragging a student from her chair at a high school in South Carolina, Deavere Smith performed the teacher’s horrified reaction to the presence of police officers in American schools.
Deavere Smith is also the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” and a National Humanities Medal. She has acted in various television series, such as “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.” She currently teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Richman Fellow criteria include an active role in public life and a commitment to improving society, strengthening democratic institutions and advancing social justice. The Richman Fellowship is hosted by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life on behalf of the Office of the President.