MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, we turn to a giant in the arts world. You probably know the name, Anna Deavere Smith. You might know her from her role on "The West Wing" or as the no-nonsense old school hospital administrator, Gloria Akalitus, on the Showtime series, "Nurse Jackie."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "NURSE JACKIE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How do you sleep at night putting someone out of a job?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: (as Gloria Akalitus) I hired Eddie Walzer 10 years ago. This is the saddest day I've had. Do you want to try doing my job? You go right ahead.
MARTIN: Anna Deavere Smith is also known and acclaimed for her career in the theater as actor and playwright, and her work as an author and teacher. Back in 1996, she earned a Genius Award from the MacArthur Foundation. Just recently, she received another high honor, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. That is a $300,000 award, one of the most prestigious honors in the arts world in this country. It's given annually to an artist who has made, quote, "an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind's enjoyment and understanding of life," unquote.
So we thought this would be a good time to catch up with Anna Deavere Smith to find out what the award means to her and what she's working on now.
Welcome back to the program. Congratulations to you.
SMITH: Always wonderful to be on your show.
MARTIN: You've won so many honors, we just can't deny that. So do you still get a thrill?
SMITH: Well, yeah. It is an honor to be in the company of the other people who have gotten this award and also to be in the legacy of Lillian Gish, who, in looking at her films, you might - she looks like a waif, but as I read somewhere, she was about as fragile as a steel rod.
MARTIN: This award comes with a nice check, which is nice, but it wasn't always ever thus for you. I mean, you've talked about the fact that there were points in your career where you were so broke, you really had to even decide whether you were going to take the subway. What kept you going during those times?
SMITH: I think it's really important to give yourself a very big question that you're working on that you can come home to, even if you, you know, are going to have to go without a cup of coffee or even a meal, that that should nourish you. And the question that I came into the art world with was a large question about the relationship of language to identity. So no matter what happened, if I got treated poorly at an audition or - one time I got fired from "Othello." I was all set to play Desdemona in this switch of race because I didn't look black enough. I mean, all these terrible things. You have to come home to something that draws your attention and keeps you participating in your form.
MARTIN: A lot of people who know your work in theater know that you are known for your one-woman plays, where you create and perform monologues in an unbelievably wide range of characters who are inspired by real people. And in your later work you literally record them and the play is their words.
I just want to play a short clip. This is you performing as former Texas governor Ann Richards in your show, "Let Me Down Easy."
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "LET ME DOWN EASY")
SMITH: (as Ann Richards) No. I was not the first woman governor of Texas. Well, in the '20s, there was Pa Ferguson, who was governor and Pa was married to Ma. And Pa died, and Ma became governor. Now, she was the one, when asked about bilingual education, who said: If the English language is good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for everybody.
MARTIN: How did you come up with this form?
SMITH: Yeah. Well, so that was my question that started when I was in a conservatory, and I was really fascinated by Shakespeare, you know, and just how words worked in Shakespeare. And then I got interested in how words work in prayers and curses and how they work in life, and I wanted to know more about that. You know, what can words really do?
When you think about it, words can break your heart, or they can change your day. I studied all kinds of things to understand about the power of words, and then ultimately about the power of conversation and taking something my grandfather had said when I was a kid, which was, if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. I went on this long journey trying to become America by becoming the sounds and words of the people that I interviewed.
MARTIN: I don't know how you feel about my saying this, but I'll just say it: It's almost like it was hiding in plain sight. Because, when you see it, it's genius in its simplicity. But I'm just wondering: Did you wake up in the morning with that idea? Did it just come on to you one day? Were you walking down the street? Did you think, oh, I'll be...
SMITH: Oh, no.
MARTIN: I'll be everybody. I'll be Lance Armstrong.
SMITH: No, no, no, no, no.
MARTIN: I'll be everybody.
SMITH: No, no. In fact, the first one of these plays I made, Michel, I made here in New York. I arrived after having a really wonderful job at Carnegie Mellon University, but nonetheless, thinking that I wasn't going to be able to do my work because of the, you know, responsibility of teaching, which I take very seriously, and I still teach. And I thought, you know, I'll leave this job. Everybody thought I was crazy. I was African-American, a woman, on a tenure track. That was a stupid thing to do.
I said: I don't care. I'll go to New York and I'll walk dogs. And I came here and, in fact, I did walk a dog for a year. But it was a great year, where I was able to really figure out what this was. And the way I did it was to walk up to people on the streets of New York and say: If you give me an hour of your time, I'll invite you to see yourself performed by an actor I know who looks like you.
And so the characters ranged from the lifeguard at the gym to Meredith Monk, the famous and well-known composer and choreographer, to a lady up the street who had a second-hand clothing store. And then I taught these actors how to do it. There were 20 of them. And we had two performances in a loft that I rented. It was packed. It was successful and, at the end of it, having been able to figure out how to do it, I thought, oh, my God. I'll never be able to raise enough money to do this, because how will I pay all of these actors?
And that's when I remembered that, as a child, I was a mimic. So then I thought, well, I'll just do all the characters myself for a while, until I figure out how to raise money. And that's just - it was sort of - you know, that's what happened. I hadn't set out at all to be doing this as a one-person show. I had, in my mind's eye, just a stage full of people stretching themselves to play parts of real human beings, in part to try to bring to the theatre more interesting, vocal tones, because people don't usually speak the way plays are written.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress, playwright and professor, Anna Deavere Smith. She's just received one of the most prestigious honors in the arts, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. We're talking with her just after the ceremony.
To the second part of why the Gish Prize is known, it's known for wanting to honor people who are cutting edge, but also people whose work is kind of understood to have an impact, to make a change. Do you see it that way?
SMITH: Well, I see it as certainly an opportunity for that and, with the people who have been awarded before, that's the case. And it's so interesting, isn't it, that Lillian Gish was a major movie star, and she really believed that film could change the world and she said art was what remains of civilization. She called art the true aristocracy, and I, too, really believe in the power of art to change things.
MARTIN: How do you decide to what you will put your hand next?
SMITH: Yeah. That's hard. My next bunch of research is going to be on the matter of education in this country, but of course, it would certainly be tempting. wouldn't it, to make a piece about gun control, because this is a subject that is contentious in our country. It's likely always to be contentious. And so these are the types of subjects that interest me, particularly if I get an opportunity to put a face on the different points of view.
MARTIN: You recently came to Capitol Hill with a group called Demand a Plan. This is a group of artists and elected officials calling for more restrictive gun policies and so forth, and also just to raise more awareness around this whole issue of gun violence.
I wanted to ask you, as an artist, what do you see your role is in this?
SMITH: Well, I think my role, or the role of any artist - and I was there as also a part of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. As you probably know, Mayor Bloomberg was at the forefront of this in 2006, along with Boston's Mayor Menino. And so I was there with Amanda Peet and Chris Rock, as well as Martin Luther King III and Kerry Kennedy. And I think that what artists can do is draw attention. I mean, all Chris Rock has to really do is show up. And, as a matter of fact, he sort of stood at the podium and said, I don't really have anything to say. Everybody else has said it. I admire that, because when someone becomes a celebrity like Mr. Rock, his face itself means a lot. So the fact that he was willing to come and be there means a lot.
And so I think we call attention. And then what I think is that the country itself, every single person in their living room has an idea about this. Everybody's bringing something. And so I think, as artists, the most we can do, the best we can do - and yet that's something - is to convene our communities around a discussion.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I'm interested in this question, because often when people like what you have to say, they're happy that you spoke up. But when they aren't happy with what you have to say, people are saying, well, that's just an entertainer. So the question I have is - I think it's...
MARTIN: ...it's hard for a lot of people to figure out how they should feel about the involvement of artists.
SMITH: Politicians have to speak in complete sentences. Someone said that Thomas Jefferson could never be found in verbal undress. Right? It has to be perfect, what they say. It doesn't have to be perfect, what we say. And so if people want to stand up and say, you're not perfect. What are you doing here? In a way, that's high praise, because we are not of the haute couture of the political world. We speak from our heart, and we want to mix it up.
MARTIN: Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright, author and professor at New York University, as she just told us. She is the latest recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. That's one of this country's highest honors for achievement in the arts, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.
Anna Deavere Smith, thank you.
SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.