Getting under their skin

A conversation with actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith

Renowned for her groundbreaking solo theater performances about race, social justice and equality, Anna Deavere Smith sees herself as a chameleon and an interpreter. Inspired by Walt Whitman’s idea “to absorb America,” she began creating a series of theater pieces in the 1990s, calling it: On the Road: A Search for the American Character.

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Like a Seurat painting, On the Road is filled with dots, specks and colors that build a detailed scene — in Smith’s work, a portrait of an America still striving to perfect itself. Whether the play’s subject be cities in civil strife (Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles), the frailties of the health-care system (Let Me Down Easy) or the struggle between the press and the presidency (House Arrest), her cumulative work is a curated display of the nation under a magnifying glass.

In a new work in progress, she examines the school-to-prison pipeline that propels youth in underserved communities from school to incarceration and a lifelong interaction with the criminal justice system. She calls it “the moral dilemma of our time.”

Widely known for her television roles in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and NBC’s The West Wing, Smith has won multiple awards in the theater and distinguished honors in the arts that place her in a class virtually alone: a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship “Genius Award,” the National Humanities Medal bestowed by President Obama and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. The former Stanford drama professor is now on the New York University faculty. Because this issue of Stanford Medicine is about skin, who better than Smith to help us look at what’s under it? She spoke with the magazine’s executive editor, Paul Costello.

Paul Costello: You grew up in segregated Baltimore in the ’50s and ’60s. What did the word “skin” mean to you as a child and later?

Anna Deavere Smith: My relationship with skin color is complicated. Everyone in my family is a different color. There was this value system, where I grew up, that light skin was more privileged. I grew up with anxieties about skin color from so many points of entry. When I first got out of acting school, there was this one agent in San Francisco who we all had to talk with to try to get a job. When I met her, she said, “Well, I can’t possibly send you out because you will antagonize my clients.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you don’t look like anything. Would you be black or would you be white? You don’t look like anything.” In the early part of my career it was a big stumbling block. There were stereotypes. As a woman, if you didn’t fit into the idea of a tragic mulatto or mammy it was really hard to situate yourself. Now, it’s not so for young women because we’ve come to understand black people look all kinds of different ways.

Costello: Early on in your career, you said you were really interested in talking to people who weren’t like you. Essentially, you wanted to get into the skin of others. Why that need?

Smith: I grew up in a segregated environment. My desire to go toward that thing that is not me has helped me feel more like I belong. It has counteracted my natural feeling of alienation, which stemmed from my youth and adolescence and even from the time I was in the conservatory. I was one of very few African Americans — maybe two at some points, three at others — at the American Conservatory Theater when I trained there. And I was never in the cool group there, which also tended to be male dominated. When I became a professional in the theater, the same was true. The theater is a very subjective community. You can’t really have “affirmative action” in the arts. I am lucky that some theaters and some arts organizations have extended hospitality to me — but I had to develop the work I do outside of the theater. I only say all this in the event that some young artist happens upon this Q-and-A. They should not belabor looking for a community in which to do their work. They should create their own sense of belonging. I really love the fact that I’ve taught myself to find a sense of home in environments that are not my own. I claim my nomadism. The fact of my being nomadic is my home. My journey has been to absorb America word for word. My grandfather used to tell me, “If you say the words long enough, they become you.” So I learn about America through repeating the words of others and, so far, by using the theater as a place to express that journey. It is not an obvious journey for those who watch my work, but it is implied.

I often quote a line from Mary Ellen Mark, a great photographer, who wrote in the book accompanying her “American Odyssey” exhibition that the camera gave her the necessary distance to get close to people. My work in the theater and my tool — a tape recorder — enables me to do the work, to create a distance, yet it gets me much closer to the person. My tape recorder is my microscope.

Costello: Your newest theater work is The Pipeline Project. What does it focus on?

Smith: It is in line with current discussions about inequality and the big gap we have in this country between those who have and those who do not. My interest in the school-to-prison pipeline begins with my interest in education. I was raised by teachers and I’ve taught for 40 years. The kids of The Pipeline Project get shoved out of school into the juvenile justice system and on from there, with a likelihood to be in correction facilities for part or much of their lives. The current tendency to immediately suspend students whose deeds might in different, more privileged environments be regarded as mischief is traced back to zero-tolerance policies that were created in the 1990s. This is a current moral dilemma, which is aligned with a larger moral dilemma about mass incarceration and, as I indicated a moment ago, a moral dilemma about the ways in which so many people lack opportunity to have productive lives and to be productive members of our society. The pathologies related to poverty and the ones related to severe punishment must be curtailed.

Costello: Do you see the reform of the criminal justice system as a health issue?

Smith: It’s definitely a health issue. Poor people are suffering not only because of economic disparity but because of the trauma and violence with which they live. It’s also a mental health issue. I was really disturbed by a recent New York Times article about the “disappearing black man.” [Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life. New York Times, April 20, 2015.] What does that do to communities? What’s the health of a community like with these staggering statistics? What does this mean in terms of the well-being of women and men who have lost their partners or the potential to have them? What does it mean in terms of the lack of fathers for boys and girls? Historically, people have tended to focus on the ramifications of the loss of fathers to young boys. It’s a major loss for girls too.

Costello: You just finished the seventh season of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, where you play a hospital administrator. You played a physician on the CBS drama Presidio MD, and you wrote and performed in a solo performance about health care and the body. Why are medical environments so interesting to you?

Smith: Well, for one thing, the medical environment is about life and death. On another level, perhaps [laughing] there’s something sexy about a doctor who is good at what they do because it’s a form of intimacy. So ever since Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare there have been television shows about good-looking doctors. On the serious side, the fact that a stranger could be touching you in ways that only people in your family or your most intimate relationships would touch you is no small thing. I’m glad that some doctors are waking up to the fact that it’s really a potential intrusion — in the same way that a disease is an intrusion. Stanford’s Abraham Verghese writes and talks about the necessity of bringing touch back into medicine. A really good doctor uses their knowledge to figure out what’s going wrong in your body and to find a way to make things right again. A really excellent doctor is taking care of you and providing healing on a much deeper level. Those are the ones who manage to get under our skin and root out what’s wrong.

Getting Under Their Skin

In this "1:2:1" podcast, African-American actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith discusses her relationship to her own skin and how as a writer and actor she gets under the skin of her characters.

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