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MAY 2004

Professor Anna Deveare Smith:
Playwright, Actress, Educator

by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Though she can easily lay claim to a number of professional lives—playwright, winner of a 1996 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, stage, film, TV star, educator—Anna Deveare Smith says that the word “actress” best describes her work, though the media keep referring to her first as a “performance artist,” a phrase she feels is politically charged and that suggests she might be a “provocateur.” No way. Although her award-winning plays Fires in the Mirror (1991) and Twilight: Los Angeles (1994) tackle issues of race and community in America, they do so by taking on interview-based voices and words of characters on all sides, depicting with mimic brilliance diverse points of view. What “provocation” exists is the impulse to think.

She thinks of herself as someone who “engages” others, whether they are the audience who has come to see her theatrically groundbreaking one-woman shows or her students at NYU, where she is a tenured professor in the Tisch School of the Arts and an adjunct in the School of Law, teaching a course on the art of listening. At NYU she is also continuing the work she started at Harvard, as founder of the Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue, which has as its mission “trying to think about what art [can] do to convene people and get [them] talking a fuller way than they might if they were basing all thought, conversation, and action on what they were reading in newspapers and seeing on television….” Articulate, exacting in her choice of words, Anna Deveare Smith draws a keen distinction between those who see her in the theatre and the freshmen and graduate students whom she teaches every other semester. “Students definitely are not audiences.” Audiences expect a finished product, she says, and constitute an unseen, anonymous public before whom she performs rehearsed (though seemingly improvisational) social commentary. Students—her students—have to be known and then she can draw them into a kind of Socratic dialogue. With students, she points out, it is she who is the audience, appreciating and challenging them to “deal with darkness, ambiguity, anxiety.”

What a different environment from when she went to Beaver College in the sixties and was one of 7 “nice Negro girls” in her freshman class. Colleges, then, didn't encourage the kind of engagement she feels is essential, but those who sought it, found it on the fringes of university life. She was an “active citizen.” Teaching came if not easily (“it's hard work”) then inevitably: her mother and her aunts were all teachers. Prompted, she recalls one of her most satisfying moments in a teaching career that goes back 30 years—when a student complimented her on having been “brave” enough to let go of being the one and only authority in the classroom. Perhaps one reason the comment stands out is that it reflects the perception that inherent in all good teaching is risk taking. Students today, she says, are less liberal and not as trusting as she thought they would be, given her celebrity. They come in with pre- and misconceptions about her. “I have to tell them I am not the National Security Advisor, I just act on The West Wing.” She's also critical of college as much too expensive and consumer driven.

Education needs to be about questions and inclusion. She cites as people she particularly admires, Maxine Greene, philosopher of aesthetic education, who held that education should show what we don't and can't know, and the pace-setting Harvard professor of law, Lani Guinier, who recently wrote about affirmative action ignoring the poor. The very afternoon Education Update caught up with Anna Deveare Smith, she had just come from a meeting of the Fund for Public Schools (“public schools are at the core of democracy”). She thinks that some collaboration between public and private schools would be advantageous. Meanwhile, she hopes to influence those who might make such decisions to get there by questioning themselves and others. With this tactic the teacher and the actress meet as one.#

Education Update, Inc.
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