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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Anna Deavere Smith brings unique style of theatre to Memorial Union

Anna Deavere Smith brought characters from her one-woman show to her Distinguished Lecture Series talk Wednesday at Memorial Union as part of Lit Fest 2016.

The lecture was one of the events that took place April 20, the day marking the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death.

Smith received the Dorothy and Lillian Gish prize in 2013. She is also the recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the Guggenheim Fellowship Award and was nominated for two Tony Awards in 1994. She is most well known for her roles in the television series “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing.”

An actor, playwright and professor, Smith coined the concept “verbatim theatre.” This involves re-enacting the words and actions of interviewees exactly how they were delivered to the interviewer.

Smith interviews people affected by destruction, including people who were involved in the Los Angeles and Baltimore riots. She pieces all the responses together to create the scripts for her plays.

“I took my fascination with rhythm and tried to apply it to real people,” Smith said. “I learned a lot about language from paying particular attention to the people who are condemned to words when actions are not going their way.”

The actor delivered example performances from her work that focused on the issue of race. She used her studies of voice patterns and rhythm to mimic individuals of various ages, races and genders. Four of the skits were from interviews she conducted, and one was a portrayal of a 1970 discussion between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.

“If you say a word often enough it becomes you,” Smith said. “This idea, along with Shakespeare’s idea of speech as action, I have tried to become America, word for word.”

Smith noted how Shakespeare uses rhythm and breath to express the language in his work. She believes that people are different because of their voices, and that “filling the world with words”—a quote from Shakespeare’s “Richard III”— is important.

“Words can change things,” Smith said. “I started thinking about that with William Shakespeare.”

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