Playwright and actress receives activism award
Anna Deavere Smith receives the sixth annual Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life award.
University President Ron Liebowitz presented actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith with the sixth annual Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life award on Thursday. Smith has appeared on television shows such as “The West Wing” and “Black-ish,” and over the past few years she has devoted much of her time to writing one-woman shows based on her interviews with over 250 people. In her plays, she delivers monologues from the point of view of the people she interviews as a way to discuss themes of equality, race relations, education and more.
Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her children Michael Saivetz ’97 and Aliza Saivetz Glasser ’01 created the Richman Fellow award six years ago in honor of Richman Saivetz’s parents, Fred and Rita, Liebowitz said. The Richman Fellow award is given to “individuals active in public life whose contributions have had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions [or] advancing social justice,” according to the Richman Fellow website.
Explaining why Smith received the award, Liebowitz extolled her accomplishments. “For several decades, she has used her singular brand of theater to explore issues of community, character and diversity in America,” he said. Smith is also the founder and director of the arts education program Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University, according to the Richman Fellow website.
Harry S. Levitan Director of Teacher Education and Professor of the Practice of Education Marya Levenson introduced Smith. “We are very fortunate to welcome this skilled, talented and powerful performer and woman who is able to bring us the voices of the people who are not so powerful,” Levenson said.
After the introduction, Smith delivered her acceptance speech, which included performances from interviews she had conducted for her plays. Smith spoke about how the topic of race is often considered taboo and rarely brought up in mainstream American conversation. “There are very small windows where we care about race,” she said. She cited the national reaction to the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray by police as an example of one of these windows.
In 2015, during the riots following Gray’s murder, Smith spoke to Kevin Moore, the man who took a video of the confrontation between Gray and the police on his phone. Using direct quotes from his interview, Smith performed a monologue from Moore’s perspective. As Moore, she talked about his reaction to what happened to Gray. “Come on. A crushed larynx? Can you do that to yourself? Three cracked vertebrae? Can you do that to yourself? Can you sever 80 percent of your own spinal cord?” she asked. She also quoted Moore as saying, “The camera’s the only thing we have that can protect us.”
Smith recalled another video documenting police brutality, this time taking place at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Sixteen-year-old Shakara was placed into a chokehold and handcuffed by a school officer for refusing to put her cellphone away in class. Her classmate, Niya Kenny, was arrested for speaking up and filming the confrontation.
After telling Shakara’s story by performing as Kenny, Smith explained how Kenny was implicated in the conflict. According to Smith, the officer told Kenny to “shut up,” but Kenny continued to protest until he eventually handcuffed her. “The problem that girls have is if you run your mouth … and to me, that’s what she [Kenny] paid for,” Smith said.
Next, Smith talked about interviewing a fifth-grade teacher named Sari Muhonen in Helsinki, Finland. Smith recalled showing Muhonen the video that Kenny took of Shakara. Performing as Muhonen responding to the video, Smith said, “I have never seen like this in Finland. … I cannot find a situation that would need handcuffs.”
Smith said she asked Muhonen how discipline works in schools in Finland. Performing as Muhonen again, she said that while she couldn’t identify one overarching form of discipline, she would tell her students, “I see you and you are really welcome here,” as a preventative measure against acting up in class.
For Smith’s final performance, she reenacted her interview with Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that aims to promote racial justice by providing legal representation to those who were deprived of proper representation or a fair trial. Stevenson is also known for his role in the making of the lynching museum and memorial that opened recently in Montgomery, Alabama.
As Stevenson, Smith told the story of a case he worked on where a man received the death penalty. Shortly before his execution date, Stevenson found out that the man had an “intellectual disability,” making it against the law for him to be sentenced to death. Courts on every level up to the Supreme Court told him they could not stop the execution because it was “too late.”
Still speaking as Stevenson, Smith recalled the moment that he had to call his client an hour before the execution to tell him that he couldn’t stop it. “The man did the thing that I fear most in my work,” she said as Stevenson. “He started to cry.” She continued as Stevenson, saying that his client said, “Please don’t hang up, there’s something important I have to say to you.” Smith said that the man stuttered when he became nervous, and he struggled to keep speaking. “He was trying so hard to get his words out, but he couldn’t,” Smith said, adding that Stevenson said that was when he also started to cry.
Finally, the man was able to get the words out. Smith said that Stevenson recalled him saying, “Mr. Stevenson, I want to thank you for representing me. I want to thank you for fighting for me.”
“The last thing he said to me,” Smith recounted as Stevenson, was, “Mr. Stevenson, I love you for trying to save my life.”
Continuing as Stevenson, Smith said, “He hung up the phone. They pulled him away. The strapped him to a gurney and they executed him. … There was something about that that just shattered me.”
Smith quoted Stevenson as saying, “I was thinking about how broken he was, I just couldn’t understand, why do we want to kill broken people?” Stevenson spiraled, questioning his career and why he does the work that he does. Eventually, according to Smith, he came to the conclusion, “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.”
Still performing as Stevenson, Smith told a story from his childhood where he had to get a polio vaccine. He saw the white children were being treated well by the nurses, who gave them sugar cubes to distract them from the pain of the shot. By the time the nurses got to the black children, their patience was worn and there were no more sugar cubes.
After watching the black children being treated so badly, Stevenson’s mother began breaking glass beakers in protest, Smith said as Stevenson. “She was screaming, ‘This is not right! This is not right!’” Stevenson remembered. A doctor threatened to call the police, but two black ministers who were present at the clinic convinced them not to, but not before one of them “fell to his knees, begging, ‘Please, please, please don’t call the police. Please give the other kids their shots.’”
Smith quoted Stevenson as saying, “You can’t have a memory like that without it creating a kind of injury, a kind of consciousness of wrongfulness, a consciousness of hurt. That’s what I mean when I say I’m broken.”
Smith’s performance of Stevenson ended with a final quote: “A lot of us were taught that you just have to find a way to … silently live with your brokenness. … I’m looking for ways to not be silent.”
The event culminated with a Q&A moderated by Levenson. Smith talked about the process of interviewing a subject and using her theatrical training to turn their words into a performance, saying that she was “interested in the relationship of language and humanity.” She said that when she does interviews, she’s always listening for “special moments,” and gave Stevenson’s story about the polio vaccine as an example.
One audience member asked Smith what it was like to perform as and interview subjects whose values and ideologies she disagrees with. Smith said that an important part of her project was going “where people are different.” She added, “One of my favorite characters is a radically conservative rodeo cowboy.”