Campus News

Anna Deavere Smith Performs at Bowdoin

Story posted April 09, 2001

"I look for the poem that a person has."

-Anna Deavere Smith

She has been called one of the most "exciting figures" in American theater and in 1996 was the recipient of a McArthur Genius Grant. For about 18 years, Anna Deavere Smith has been following a unique vision of American theater— theater inextricably linked with the people of America.

A social critic, documentarian, actor, educator and writer, Smith calls her body of work "On the Road, Search for American Character." She interviews people from all walks of life, then takes on their words, accents and mannerisms in performance. In this way she explores pivotal events in the lives of communities and people that shed light on what it means to be an American.

"I've been trying to walk in people's words," she said.

Among other topics, she has explored the riots surrounding a death in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; the violence and anger that were a result of the Rodney King beating and subsequent trials; and the American presidency.

At a recent Bowdoin Common Hour, Smith performed a work drawing from all of these previous performances, "The Possibility of Us; The Us Project; or The Crossroads of Ambiguity."

In the performance she walked in the words of the following people:


  • Studs Terkel, who opined on the need for more communication and less communications;
  • Thomas Jefferson, whose thoughts on race fly in the face of the idea of liberty and justice for all;
  • Ken Burns, who believes that curiosity over whether Jefferson fathered Sally Hemmings children has eclipsed the shameful fact that he owned humans;
  • A Jewish woman in Crown Heights who sought the help of a black child in the neighborhood rather than work on the Sabbath;
  • A Korean woman struggling to deal with her feelings after her store was destroyed during riots in Los Angelas;
  • A juror in the second trial of those who beat Rodney King, who saw jurors come together in a verdict after they acknowledged their own prejudices.

The words of each of these people, when spoken and acted by Smith, bore their own special wisdom, and prompted those in the audience to consider the circumstances of their own lives and how they might all transcend those circumstances to become "We the people."

Those wishing to see more of Smith's work will have the opportunity April 29 when her performance of "Twilight: Los Angelas, 1992" is broadcast on PBS.

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