On the record with actress Anna Deavere Smith—author of On Grace
The 2013 winner of the prestigious The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, Anna Deavere Smith, known for her TV role in The West Wing leads a week-long residency developing her latest work, On Grace, with collaborator cellist Joshua Roman. Next Monday, Mar. 18, Smith will participate in a staged reading of the work followed by a discussion between Smith and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Vox had time to ask Smith a few questions.
What do you hope to gain from tonight’s symposium, and what do you hope an audience of Georgetown students might take away from it?
An understanding of where grace lives in Washington.
In some of your most noted plays, like “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles,” you’ve concentrated on real events of rioting and unrest. How did your interests then shift to the idea of grace and other theological concepts?
Well, grace is not just a theological concept. A ballerina might think about grace. A woman in Los Angeles who I performed was shot while she was pregnant. The bullet hit the baby’s elbow and saved the life of the unborn baby and the mother. Some would say that was grace. Out of 320 interviews about the riot, I found many instances of grace. I also found it among survivors of the Rwandan genocide. One of whom I will perform on Monday night. You just never know where grace will appear.
In many of your works, including “On Grace,” you rely on interviews of individuals that you then embody in your monologues. What are the challenges of this theatrical style? What are the benefits?
I don’t think the challenges are different nor the benefits, between this and any work of any kind, whether artistic, diplomatic or works of service. Hard work is hard. The benefit is when you solve a problem while working.
You’ve been critically praised as creating a new kind of art form by weaving this journalistic exploration of social justice issues into theater. How were you originally inspired to do that?
I was inspired by the language of Shakesepeare to learn all I could about the relationship of language to identity. For me that moved from personal identity to civic identity.
Earlier today, Smith took part in the symposium, “On Stage with ‘On Grace’: Religion, Redemption and Politics” in the Davis Performing Arts Center’s Gonda Theatre with Professor E.J. Dionne, Imam Mohamed Majid, and Michael D. McCurry. Photo: Phil Humnicky, courtesy Georgetown University
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark