Anna Deavere Smith is an actor, a teacher, a playwright, and the creator of an acclaimed series of one-woman plays based on her interviews with diverse voices from communities in crisis. She has won two Obie Awards, two Tony nominations for her play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, and a MacArthur Fellowship.
She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Fires in the Mirror. She has had roles in the films Philadelphia, An American President, The Human Stain, and Rent, and she has worked in television on The Practice, Presidio Med, and The West Wing. The founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, she teaches at New York University and lives in New York City.
Question: What is a question we should be asking ourselves?
Anna Deavere Smith: Well I think the question, “What can I do?” is a very good question. To have the courage to go someplace where there’s a problem. Even if you feel that you couldn’t possibly have very much to offer, but that you have on the other hand a feeling that you would like to offer something. And to have the courage to go to that place or that person and say, “What can I do? How can I help?” And “What can I do?” doesn’t just mean “How can I help?” It can also mean “Is there something for me to do here? How can I be a part of what you are? How can I be a part of what you’re doing?”
And so I’ve always felt that “What can I do?” is one of the most elegant questions of all, which is just slightly different than “How can I help?” and more complicated, too.
Recorded on: August 22, 2007