Interview | Anna Deavere Smith


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.





Interview | Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman

Joshua Roman

If you haven’t heard of Joshua Roman by now, odds are you’re living in an alternate universe. The 30-year-old cellist began his professional career at the ripe age of 22, becoming principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006. Since then, he’s cultivated a rock star-type following, becoming a TED fellow in 2011, Artistic Director of Seattle Town Hall’s TownMusic Series, and working on cross-over collaborations with pop artist like DJ Spooky and photographer Chase Jarvis.

Roman performs as part of Conversations On Grace at the Harris Theater, a two-part evening that includes a viewing of his latest work-in-progress play On Grace, a collaborative project with renowned actress Anna Deavere Smith.

You’ve been called a “classical rock star” by the press. Is that a moniker you embrace?
I’ve gone through various phases in my relationship with this particular title. It’s one that I think each reader has a different reaction to, and perception of its meaning. At its best, it connotes a certain intensity and fearlessness that I certainly aspire to, and in that sense I could only hope to live up to the name.

You’re an award-winning cellist and a TED Fellow. You’ve used your skills as an artist and your interest in technology to bring classical music to the fore in new ways. What is it about incorporating aspects of technology and classical music together that excites you?
I am interested in a kind of leveling of the playing field that the internet and certain technologies can bring to many areas of life, and music is definitely undergoing seismic shifts as this process occurs. There are so many opportunities to unite people, groups, communities that are spread over great physical distances. There are also opportunities for artists and explorers to be influenced by and learn from the work of others in a much less time consuming or expensive way. I don’t think this can or should ever be a replacement for face to face interaction, but it is a powerful component of our constantly evolving experience and that excites me greatly.

Tell us about the creative process and your collaboration with Anna Deavere Smith. What’s been special about this partnership?
For me, the chance to work with Anna, with the integrity and commitment – and obviously skill and experience – that she brings to the table, has been extremely inspiring. From our very first meeting our collaboration developed as a true partnership, and I haven’t felt any holding back on either side. Anna has a very strong sense of what she wants, but isn’t afraid to zoom in straight to the crux of an issue or question and be open to whatever that confirms or changes in the process. To be looking so closely at an aspect of humanity brings a lot of personal feelings and philosophical thoughts out at the same time. I’ve cherished the open connection we’ve developed through our work together.

How did you react when she approached you about collaborating?
The introduction to Anna came from a musician I respect tremendously. That set the tone, and as I explored more of her non-television work – Let Me Down Easy and other stage pieces –became excited about the potential. That being said, you never know what’s going to happen when you end up in the room with someone! In the end, our first rehearsal was where I really felt the dynamic quality of the project and her personality and felt truly engaged.

Have there been any unexpected surprises?
The biggest surprise was that I ended up writing most of the music for the production myself. In the beginning, my intention was to use the music of J.S. Bach, and Anna and I were painstakingly matching moods, sounds of voices, ideas, etc., with movements from the famous Six Suites for Unaccompanied Violoncello. At a certain point though, I started to feel the need for a few more modern sounds in certain characters, and more to the point, was worried about making any cuts or additions to the Bach in order to fit things together neatly. That’s when I started improvising just to get the exact expressive qualities I wanted, and the improvising in turn has led to the majority of the music being original compositions for this piece.

You bring a live music dimension to On Grace, unlike anything ADS has done before. How has that aspect shaped the evolution of the piece?
Anna would probably be able to more accurately share on the difference between this piece’s evolution and her others’. I can say, though, that the music plays a big part in this one. Rather than relegating it to a background role, it is an integral element both in the time it occupies and the way Anna and I – and the music – interact. We wanted to create plenty of space for the music to breathe with the words, and give the audience a chance to absorb as much as possible. Being a physical presence on stage also changes things, and allows for a transformation to happen with our interaction as well.

On Grace has been developed in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. What kind of impact do you think a city like Chicago will have as you continue to develop the piece?
Grace Cathedral in SF was an incredibly spiritual place to start this piece, and adding the political element of DC at Georgetown was a great contrast. Looking forward to Chicago, I hope some of the grassroots ideals, and the gritty, no-nonsense, reality driven sensibilities I associate with the city with end up working their way in. You never know though, a lot of it has to do with the micro culture we are in, in this case the University of Chicago.

What are your own thoughts on the meaning of the word “grace”?
That’s a big question! And the answer is evolving the more I am encouraged by our work to view the concept of grace from new angles. In music, I tend to think of it as an occurrence where something difficult – physically, emotionally, aurally, spiritually, or in combination – is performed in such a way as to transcend the challenges and focus all attention on the sublime or beautiful. The main part of this idea that I think carries over into any meaning of grace is the “overcoming” aspect. Whether through divine intervention, sheer effort, a sort of letting go, or whatever else, something has to be overcome for there to be grace.

How would you describe On Grace to someone who’s about to see it for the first time?
On Grace is a unique experience in that musical and theatrical elements have a nontraditional relationship. It’s a powerful combination of Anna’s signature style of acting out portions her interviews with real people, and a special continuity through musical themes and development that creates a sense of reflection and, at the same time, engagement. Hopefully when you see it, we take you on a powerful journey that opens your mind to the possibilities for exploring grace within ourselves, and what that can mean for those around us.

See On Grace at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Tuesday, January 21 at 7:30PM; Tickets available at