Anna Deavere Smith's ground-breaking solo shows blur the lines between theater and journalism, using text from real-life encounters to create gripping portraits.

Why you should listen

Hailed by Newsweek as "the most exciting individual in American theater," Anna Deavere Smith uses solo performance as a public medium to explore issues of race, identity and community in America. Her grandfather once told her, "Say a word often enough, and it becomes you."

Inspired by this and Walt Whitman's idea "to absorb America," Deavere Smith began interviewing people (more than 2,000 now) across the country some 20 years ago. Without props, sets or costumes, she translates those encounters into profound performances, each drawing verbatim from the original recorded interview. She has an uncanny ability to inhabit the characters -- or rather the people -- she's representing onstage, regardless of their race, gender or age. And while her approach to cultural commentary is now widely imitated, she remains the master of the form. Her play, Let Me Down Easy, premiered this year at the Long Wharf Theater.

Deavere Smith is perhaps best known for her examination of race relations, having written and performed Fires in the Mirror, a raw view of those affected by the Crown Heights riots of 1991, and Twilight: Los Angeles, which tackled the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Along the way, she's earned two Obies, a MacArthur "genius" grant, and several Tony nominations, while also teaching at Stanford and NYU, and roles on such shows as The West Wing and HBO's Life Support. Her most recent book is Letters to a Young Artist: Straight Up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts, and she is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, a group that brings together artists to make works about social change.

What others say

“Anna Deavere Smith is the ultimate impressionist: She does people's souls.” — The New York Times

Anna Deavere Smith’s TED talks

Anna Deavere Smith on the TED Blog
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Quotes from Anna Deavere Smith

My grandfather told me when I was a little girl, ‘If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.’
Anna Deavere Smith
TED2005 • 715K views Feb 2007
Fascinating, Inspiring
So you ask about a defining moment — ain’t no defining moment in American history for me. It’s an accretion of moments that add up to where we are now, where trivia becomes news. And more and more, less and less awareness of the pain of the other.
Anna Deavere Smith
TED2005 • 715K views Feb 2007
Fascinating, Inspiring
I don’t wear shoes [while performing] just in case I feel like I have to cuddle up and get into the feet of somebody, walk in somebody else’s shoes.
Anna Deavere Smith
TED2005 • 715K views Feb 2007
Fascinating, Inspiring