Anna Deavere Smith (born September 18, 1950) is an American actress, playwright, and professor. She is currently the artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress. Smith is widely known for her roles as National Security Advisor Dr. Nancy McNally in The West Wing (2000–06), and as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie (2009–15). She is a recipient of The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2013), one of the richest prizes in the American arts, with a remuneration of $300,000, and was named the Jefferson Lecturer for 2015.
At the beginning of her career, Smith appeared in a wide range of stage productions, including the role of Mistress Quickly in an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor with the Riverside Shakespeare Company, produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, set in New Orleans in post-Civil War America. For the role, Smith transformed herself into a “Cajun voodoo woman,” an indication of the actress’ transformational power that would manifest itself in her future work.
Smith is best known for her “documentary theatre” style in plays such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, both of which featured Smith as the sole performer of multiple and diverse characters and won her the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show two years in a row. Fires in the Mirror dealt with the 1991 Crown Heights riot; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 dealt with the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Both of these plays were constructed using material solely from interviews. House Arrest (2000) and Let Me Down Easy (2008) continued in this style.
Let Me Down Easy, which explored the resiliency and vulnerability of the human body, debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in January 2008. It was also performed at the American Repertory Theater in September and October 2008. A revised version of the show had its New York City premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in October 2009 and enjoyed favorable reviews and an extension into January 2010. It was also a featured program as part of PBS’s Great Performances series on January 13, 2012. She debuted her one-woman play, The Arizona Project in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 2008. The piece, which explored “women’s relationships to justice and the law,” was commissioned by Bruce Ferguson, director of Future Arts Research (F.A.R.), a new artist-driven research program at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
As of July 2009, Smith is the artist-in-residence with the Center for American Progress and is developing a new show called The Americans, which documents change in Washington, D.C.
In Spring 2012, Smith was the first artist-in-residence at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, a program founded by the Very Rev Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, who shared Smith’s vision of “bringing together art and religion”. Commissioned by Grace Cathedral and the Cockayne Fund, Smith wrote and performed the play, On Grace, based on interviews relating to the meaning of God’s grace. The performances were accompanied by American cellist Joshua Roman.
Smith has appeared in several films, including Philadelphia (1993), Dave (1993), The American President (1995), Rent (2005), and Rachel Getting Married (2008). She had recurring roles on The Practice (2000) and as Dr. Nancy McNally on The West Wing (2000–06). Smith also appeared as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in the Showtime dark comedy series Nurse Jackie, which premiered in June 2009. Early in her television career, she appeared on the long running soap opera All My Children in the recurring role of “Hazel the shampoo girl”.
In February 2014, Smith appeared as a mentor in Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Masterclass, part of the HBO documentary series Masterclass.
Smith teaches in the Department of Art & Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. From 1990 to 2000, she was a professor in the drama department at Stanford University and prior to that taught at Carnegie Mellon University. She also teaches at NYU School of Law.
In 2000, Smith published her first book, Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics. In 2006, she released another, Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts – For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.
As a dramatist, Smith was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for Fires in the Mirror which won her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. She was nominated for two Tony Awards in 1994 for Twilight: one for Best Actress and another for Best Play. The play won her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance and a Theatre World Award.
Smith was one of the 1996 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius grant.” She also won a 2006 Fletcher Foundation Fellowship for her contribution to civil rights issues, as well as a 2008 Matrix Award from the New York Women in Communications, Inc. In 2009, she won a Fellow Award in Theater Arts from United States Artists.
She has received honorary degrees from Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College, Arcadia University, Bates College, Smith College, Skidmore College, Macalester College, Occidental College, Pratt Institute, Holy Cross College, Haverford College, Wesleyan University, School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University, Colgate University, California State University Sacramento, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wheelock College, Williams College, Yale University, and the Cooper Union.
The United Solo Theatre Festival board awarded her with the award for outstanding solo performer during the inaugural edition in November 2010.
Smith won The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2013), one of the richest prizes in the American arts with a remuneration of $300,000.
In 2013, she received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. In 2015 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities, delivering a lecture entitled “On the Road: A Search for American Character”.
Photo: Press of Atlantic City0