Many know her as Nancy McNally–the hard-nosed National Security Advisor on NBC’s Emmy Award-winning The West Wing–or as Gloria Akalitus–the bristly hospital administrator on the hit Showtime series Nurse Jackie. But Anna Deavere Smith, a National Humanities Medal recipient and Pulitzer-nominated playwright and actor, is perhaps best known for the real people she portrays onstage than the imaginary ones she plays on TV.
Tall, elegant and articulate, Smith has spent a career channeling the words of her subjects for the stage. Lauded for her documentary-style theater that blends in-depth journalism with performance, Smith uses verbatim text from interviews she conducts as the basis of her plays, relating social matters like healthcare, race, social reform and religion based on the testimonials of everyday people, notable politicians, field experts and national leaders.
She brings her latest work-in-progress play, On Grace, to Chicago for the first time.
What can you tell us about On Grace and how it’s developing?
On Grace is being created differently than other works of mine. I am working with another on stage performer – a cellist. The theme is just as the title indicates: the subject of grace. As the performance unfolds, it will explore what that word means and what it might mean in the world today. During the development phase, one half of the evening will be devoted to the audience’s ideas about how grace does or does not manifest in the world around them.
You’ve won a Drama Desk Award, two Obies, and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize during your theater career. How do you transition to a more pop culture identity such as Nancy McNally on The West Wing or Gloria Akalitus on Nurse Jackie?
Most actors these days work in multiple forms – and most artists are working in a variety of media – for example they are making films, albums, writing books and some are making perfume and clothing! It’s the way of our time.
How difficult is it to balance acting for the stage and acting for television?
I am grateful for the work. I am also a tenured professor at New York University. Each opportunity allows for a different way of communicating, and a different kind of relationship to the people around me. Sometimes others are supporting my vision, and sometimes I am supporting the vision of others.
You use verbatim text from interviews you’ve conducted as the cornerstone of your plays. Why use verbatim text rather than use some creative license?
I am interested in language and how people construct it. That is my specific point of departure.
For On Grace, you talked to various people, including religious and spiritual leaders, about the meaning of the word “grace.” What was it about “grace” that compelled you to create an entire performance based on that theme?
Grace is the opposite of some of the struggle and brutality that I heard about when I was writing my play about the human body – ultimately a play that focused on American Health care. However, while writing the play I travelled to Rwanda, ten years after the genocide in that country. I also went to South Africa during a time that the President of that country was denying that AIDS was an epidemic and denying its causes. And I went to US military hospitals in Germany, where American soldiers were shipped for emergency care, before being shipped back to military hospitals state side. I saw a lot of evidence of how vulnerable we all are physically, to disease, to the state, to human hatred and so forth. But I also saw evidence of resilience. Where there is resilience there is grace. I wanted to further explore that.
Is there a particular interview for On Grace that resonates with you?
One reason that I speak with so many people, and present different voices, is that I do feel it takes a “village.” My works are essentially a village of ideas. I don’t pick out any single one.
We all have our own perceptions about “grace” and its meaning. How has your perception of “grace” changed since you started work on this production?
It is ever evolving.
You’re collaborating with cellist Joshua Roman. It’s the first time you’ve collaborated with a live musician for one of your productions. Why Joshua and why now?
I have always thought that there is a lot of music in the language that I hear and the language that I study in order to create a performance. I am told that the cello is the closest instrument to the human voice. I’ve also heard that about the saxophone. I’ve used recorded saxophone in other performances. I wanted to explore the cello. It is a beautiful, heart-rending instrument. I heard about Joshua through Michael Tilson Thomas’s office. Michael Tilson Thomas is the director of the San Francisco Symphony. San Francisco was where I was first in residence to begin work on the piece. Both Joshua and I were artists in residence at Grace Cathedral.
What does it mean to bring On Grace to Chicago for the first time, and to develop it in a city like Chicago?
I am very honored to be welcomed by both the University of Chicago and by Harris Theater. The University of Chicago has a standard of excellence that I find inspiring. I have spoken to students there in the past. I know for example that undergraduates in the arts study broadly – this means to me that the University sees the use of integrated art and young artists into a broader world of ideas, and the history of ideas – and potentially it offers them more ways to connect to the world that strict conservatory training. I have also been longing to work at Harris Theater. Joan Harris is a person I admire greatly. I am told this is the first time the University of Chicago Theater Department and Harris Theater have collaborated. I hope this launches a more long term relationship for the organizations. But I have also found the people of Chicago – whenever I’ve come to town to speak – to be a very thoughtful community. I am very eager to hear what they have to say about the phenomenon of Grace when we open the floor for discussion. We are allowing a full hour for discussion, and there is also community activities scheduled throughout my residency.
Chicago also interests me as an urban environment. A few years ago I was working on a movie about Cabrini Green, the former housing facility. It never got made – but during that time I was caused to learn about the history of Chicago in housing – equal and unequal housing, and I was fascinated by what I learned, and the people I met. Then, I must add, that one of my mentors – Studs Terkel was nothing less than a Chicago institution.
What do you hope people will take away from On Grace after seeing the performance?
I always anticipate what the audience will bring to a performance, and actually can’t presume to know what they will or should take away. I think of art as a catalyst for deepening one’s own personal narrative, and for informing how one might be in the world. The occasion of performance convenes people. We don’t have that many places where we convene in person to exchange ideas. For the first hour we will perform. For the second hour we will hear from the audience. I hope people in the audience get to know more about the ideas around them, in their community, and that after Joshua and I leave town, new relationships – relationships around civic issues that could use a little grace, can take off. I also hope that friendships can be forged among audience members that may not have been forged otherwise.