Backstory: Can we talk?

Raising the curtain on diversity

Photo: Leslie Williamson


Forget the applause. As an actor and play-wright, Anna Deavere Smith is happiest when her work gives audience members fresh ways of thinking and talking about social issues. Now she’s hoping to spark conversations at the School of Medicine about diversity.

Smith will give a one-hour performance during the school’s annual strategic planning retreat in late January, portraying how various faculty members, students and alumni view the issue.

“What I’m trying to do is take a part of what these people have said and put it in a larger collage of the whole community,” says Smith, who may be best known for her recurring role as national security advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s “The West Wing.” “It’s just using another format, rather than a panel discussion or something like that, to try to bring the eyes of the community onto themselves.”

In such one-woman shows as “Fires in the Mirror” about the 1991 racial clash in the Brooklyn neigh-borhood of Crown Heights and “Twilight: Los Angeles” about the 1992 racial riots that followed the Rodney King verdicts, Smith’s power-packed writing and performances have earned accolades. Her plays are drawn from scores of interviews with people from all stations of life who are affected by the subject matter.

Smith, who was on the faculty in Stanford’s drama department until 2000 and is now at New York University, has long been intrigued by the concept of using the arts to stimulate conversations about social issues. She founded the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard in the 1990s to create those types of conversations and is in the process of rebuilding the institute at NYU. Given the results of the last presidential election, Smith believes broader social discussions will become increasingly important. “We’re obviously in a divided country but we don’t know each other,” says Smith, a former MacArthur “genius award” recipient. “I think art can be a really wonderful part of bringing people together.”

The hope of stimulating a new way of talking and thinking about diversity at a medical school appealed to Smith, who is also exploring the possibility of doing a larger theater piece on health care and the body. She says she appreciates the desire of the school’s leadership to create an atmosphere “that makes talented people of all color, different ways of life and lifestyles, want to be here and be part of this community.”

“People look to Stanford for excellence. I think they can find a way to make diversity about excellence,” she says. “A lot of people are anxious about the word ‘diversity’ because they think it’s about affirmative action, not about merit. But if there’s a place where diversity can connote excellence and connote what is needed in the future of medicine, Stanford is it.”

For this project, Smith spent roughly 20 hours interviewing 14 people at the medical school. In the ensuing weeks, she reviewed the videotapes and audiotapes of those conversations and began distilling the comments into a cohesive one-hour piece. Although reluctant to disclose her initial impressions of those conversations, Smith says one thing did stand out: “These are very smart people. If anybody can make a difference, it’s these people.”

As much as she enjoys the process of interviewing people, distilling their words into a script and performing, Smith says her ultimate thrill comes from the conversations that take place days later. “In traditional theater, I have the last line and the curtain closes. In this case, they have the last word,” Smith says. “I’m the first act; they’re the second act.”

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