Anna Deavere Smith engages audience with provocative and humorous character

The third University Lectures speaker performed multiple acts Tuesday night, challenging listeners to think critically about social issues and about grace.

Hendricks Chapel was filled with laughter and applause from students and adults Tuesday night as actress, playwright and professor Anna Deavere Smith, one of the last guests of the University Lectures series this semester, performed.

Bringing a fresh perspective to the stage, Smith challenged the audience to think critically about the “world of transition” we are all living in. Focusing on themes of twilight, or in-between, moments and aspects of grace, Smith engaged the crowd with her physical presence and sense of humor.

Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Sartori
Focusing on themes of twilight, or in-between, moments and aspects of grace, Anna Deavere Smith engaged a Hendricks Chapel crowd Tuesday with her physical presence and sense of humor.

"The whole idea is that I have anyone in the world in me," Smith said. “So I went on a different journey that accepts, loves, admires and cultivates difference with an understanding that the best I can possibly do is to try to travel that space in between." These twilight moments allow Smith to transcend racial, cultural or gendered boundaries through impersonations of various characters such as Anne Richards, former governor of Texas, her aunt Lorraine and Rep. John Lewis.

With Smith’s impersonations there never seems to be a dull moment — her facial expressions, commanding movements and strategic moments of complete silence, kept the audience on the edge of their seats and wanting more.

Stephanie Malis, a Newhouse freshman who had never heard of Smith prior to the lecture, was captivated by the way she could seemingly flip a switch and become another character. “"I thought it was incredible to see how she can take on different characters that really grasped my attention and just to see her passion come through with the roles that she played," Malis said.

These diverse characters were woven throughout Smith’s lecture, continuing with her discussion of grace. “Part of what I think about as I think about grace is stimulating that part of the imagination which causes us to maybe think that we do have this share, no matter how distant someone's reality is from ours,” Smith said. In a world growing increasingly toward technology, it’s easy to forget about the people whose world we share; yet Smith encourages her audience by explaining that it is grace that is still fostering mankind’s interest in each other’s viewpoints and differences.

For such serious topics, Smith never hesitated to grace the audience with humor. Also a solo performer, she immediately drew cracks of laughter as she took the stage. She commented on prevalent social issues with her provocative writing and acting.

Junior Hugh Pringle is fan of Smith, admiring her for her fearless comments on various social topics. “I think she embodies engaging ideas that people aren't usually comfortable talking about and her artistry allows that dialogue to take place," Pringle said. This cultural diversity was seen within her impersonations, which ranged from a Hasidic Jewish woman to an African American congressman.

As Smith concluded her lecture, she returned to the idea of walking in limbo, attempting to make sense of the world around her despite any barriers along the way. "I'm looking for grace which is something about kindness, which is something about the understanding that we are in this together, that we have to find our way,” she said.

Smith is a modern jack-of-all-trades, juggling three careers: accomplished actress, playwright and professor at New York University. On television, Smith has appeared most recently on Nurse Jackie and was previously on the acclaimed show The West Wing. She is also known for her roles in the films Rachael Getting Married and Philadelphia. Aside from acting, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles are Smith’s most acclaimed original theatrical plays. To name just a few of her many accomplishments, she has been awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant, a National Humanities Medal and a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.


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