Anna Deavere Smith Performs One-Woman Show at Bridges, Engages Students

Award-winning
actor, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith performed and discussed
pieces from her acclaimed one-woman documentary theater performances in Bridges
Auditorium Wednesday evening. She is the latest guest of Pomona’s
Distinguished Speaker Series.

Smith
refers to herself as a student of expression. Her work, the product of hundreds of interviews spanning the nation and nearly three decades,
demonstrates her distinct ability to synthesize journalistic technique and
artistic interpretation. On Wednesday, Smith performed excerpts from her shows,
On the Road: A Search for American Character, Twilight: Los
Angeles
, which depicts the
1992 Los Angeles race riots, and Let Me Down Easy, her most recent piece, which deals with the
subject of healthcare.   

Smith
showcased her theatrical agility as she leapt between several of her famous
portraits—a Jewish woman from Crown Heights, Brooklyn on Shabas, a Korean
immigrant after the 1992 L.A. riots, a young survivor of the Rwandan genocide
and a rodeo bull rider, Dr. Cornel West.

She
placed her pieces in a relevant context for the liberal arts student audience
before her, further proving her commitment to speak with and connect to
everyone in their own tongues. After expressing her gratitude toward her own
college experience, Smith admitted that she had not majored in theater in
college.

“I’m
a theater person, but I didn’t plan on doing it… I went to college thinking
of being a linguist,” Smith said. “I ended up leaving school with a really
different idea about purpose.”

Smith
took her first acting classes in L.A. when she found herself on a stage largely
swept clean of political activism. Her decision to begin acting, and the
innovative performance projects she later undertook, are choices she considers
very “riskful.”

Smith
opened her performance by referencing President Oxtoby’s 2011 Invocation
Address, which encouraged students to be daring, and she returned several times
to the importance of taking risks. She commented that artists and humanities
scholars tend to be “risk-averse,” and she questioned the audience about how
many risks they thought they had taken this year.

Smith’s
portraits are about taking risks, escaping herself and her comfort
zone—“looking for my opposites,” she said. She described her travels across the
country, from New York to Los Angeles, looking for “extraordinary language,”
and above all, “for the people who are very different from me.”

Smith
challenged her audience to take risks and to show grace. In an interview with The Student Life prior to the show, she also
expressed her desire for students to be innovative. Even to those enamored of
her style, she discouraged following the same route.

“Don’t
do what I do,” she said. “Let’s push the human race forward.”

Smith’s
tone and challenge embodied the purpose of the Distinguished Speaker Series.
The series aims to do more than bring high-profile lecturers to campus simply to appreciate a live performance, ask a few questions and maybe shake their
hands. It hopes that guests will speak to students directly, excite our
passions specifically, look out across us in Bridges and dare us to take a
greater risk.

Throughout
her accounts of misery and frustration, Smith maintained a distinctly American
sense of hope and optimism. It seems this sentiment has inspired her recent
project, Anna Deavere Smith Works. ADSW, Inc. is a nonprofit that aims to unite
socially committed artists and to enter them in conversation with scholars,
scientists, activists, students and politicians. A global initiative, ADSW
represents artists from diverse genres, bridging art and activism to address
the world’s many social problems.

Smith
has received an Obie Award, two Tony nominations, a Drama Desk Award, the U.S.A. Susan V. Berresford Award and a MacArthur fellowship, among other honors. She
may be most recognizable to students for her roles on Nurse Jackie and The West
Wing
. Smith is currently a professor at New York University, at the Tisch
School of the Arts and at NYU School of Law.

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