Commencement Speaker Anna Deavere Smith Talks with LMU Magazine

Anna Deavere Smith is a stage, film and TV actor who has appeared in “Black-ish,” “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing.” She is particularly known for her one-woman theater productions in which she portrays many points of view by playing a wide range of characters. Her “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” examines the riots and unrest that erupted after the closely watched trial of four police officers accused of using excessive force and assaulting Rodney King in April 1992. In that work, Smith portrays more than two dozen people, including a juror in the trial who voted for acquittal, the city’s chief of police, victims and violent rioters, and others. Smith is a professor at New York University, where she teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts. She is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, also housed at NYU, which supports artists whose works address social issues and engender civic engagement. Smith was named a MacArthur Fellow in 1996.

April marked the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King trial. Did we learn anything since the spring of 1992?
No — we didn’t. And two years ago in my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, we had a very similar thing happen with the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that followed. In California, two of the cops did eventually go to jail, but nothing happened to the ones in Baltimore. It seems that less and less does happen to law enforcement when these things go on.

Your work often uses art to persuade people, to show them things they’ve not seen before. Ultimately, are people persuadable? Can you get through to people with theater and spoken word?
I don’t think of what I do as spoken word, at all. I make portraits of people who speak to me, and use their words verbatim.

You do character sketches of people after interviewing them, rather than write directly from your own experience.
Yes, it’s been my work for 25 years now; it’s a journey I’m on to see how I can do that. With “Notes in the Field,” [a play about how young people living in the circumstances of poverty often go from school to prison], we stop the show in the middle and let the audience speak with facilitators that we trained. I think the first step is to alert the audience to the fact that this is not just a spectator sport.

Why does using other characters work best for you, as opposed to telling your own tale?
Well, there are ways that my characters are my tale, as metaphor. I’ve always been interested in artists who tackle the world in that way; Chekhov was doing that. I’m interested in learning about people who aren’t like me. This satisfies a great curiosity in me, a way to get close to other people.

Do these characters all represent a shared humanity, whatever their ostensible differences?
As an African-American woman who grew up in a de facto segregated environment, I’m doing everything I can to deny the possibility that we are all strangers. It doesn’t mean that we’re all the same.

Am I right that the generation coming up now — some of whom you will address at LMU’s commencement exercises on May 6 — are more broadly committed to social justice and racial issues than my generation, and yours?
The ones I know, who work with me, who I teach, are. The signs and signals, certainly in the arts, say so: There is not a campus I go to where students are not concerned about these things. And 25 years ago that may not have been the case.

The current crop of LMU students is, for the most part, socially engaged. I wonder if you suspect religion, and the school’s Jesuit roots, may have a role in that engagement. Obviously, religion had a very progressive role in the civil rights movement, and a baleful role in other periods of history.
The Jesuits are committed to social justice; it’s in their history and in their blood. It may even help that the Pope is a Jesuit. I spent some time at Santa Clara University, which is Jesuit, this year, and Georgetown University. So I think schools that have a Jesuit mission have a great opportunity for leadership right now.