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The Black Artists of Yesterday, Today, and the Future

Recognizing and Remembering Black artists that have shaped Theatre: Anna Deavere Smith


The Center Theatre Group “Twilight” Meet and Greet at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee on Feb. 7, 2023 in Watts, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

This week, we are looking into the work of playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith as we continue our educational exploration for Black History Month, an annual observance that honors the important people and events in Black culture and the history of the United States. February is Black History Month, an annual observance that honors the important people and events in Black culture and the history of the United States. The month highlights the love, success, and bond Black people share and the contributions they have made as a community and for the country, while also honoring and recognizing the strife they have faced then and now. Though the month seeks to uplift Black joy, it also is a reminder of the work that must be done as a country to fight against systemic racism, police brutality, and the inequality Black people continue to face. Here at CTG, we are exploring Black history through the lens of Black artists who uplifted the theatre community.

Born in 1950 in Baltimore, Maryland, Smith started attending school after the city had started integrating public schools. She studied acting at Beaver College and went on to receive an MFA in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, CA. Smith is often credited for having pioneered verbatim theatre, in which the playwright interviews real life people regarding a particular subject and event, in turn creating a show out of the interview material. Smith first explored this work in her play Fires in the Mirror, which explores the Crown Heights riot through the viewpoints of African American and Jewish people that had some connection, whether directly or indirectly, to the event. The show is composed of monologues performed only by Smith, using a limited number of props and costumes, but instead heavily relying on Smith's ability to adapt and walk in her character's footsteps. The show received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person show in 1993 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In 1992, Smith began working on her next piece of verbatim theatre in Los Angeles, following the 1992 L.A. Uprising due to the acquittal of police offers who beat Rodney King, which was captured on tape. Smith interviewed around 300 people after the events and debuted her piece at the Mark Taper Forum entitled Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. The show, which was commissioned and developed by Center Theatre Group, tells of the events of the L.A. Uprising as well as the reactions, sentiments, and experiences of people throughout the city. The show subsequently opened on Broadway in 1994 and was nominated for a Tony Award and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person show in 1994, earning Smith the award for a second year in a row.

A new production is set to open at the Mark Taper Forum in March of 2023, 30 years from its original opening. ve actors will now play the roles Smith once played herself.

Smith pioneered an art form that takes the intricacies of society and develops conversations while keeping intersectionality at its core. For her work, Smith has garnered a multitude of accolades, including the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, which recognizes individuals that deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities. Smith's commitment to the usage of theatre as the medium of conversation has helped revolutionize the way we use art when discussing the difficulties of the real world.

“I think it is a two-way engagement,” Smith said during the first week of rehearsals of Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. “We are living in a very upside-down world right now, [where] people are struggling to make sense of political divisions in our own country...People will come to this play with a certain ability to engage with something that’s not perfect, something about a long-term problem in our country.”

It is because of artists like Smith that we can tell the stories of the marginalized to a broader audience. Even now, Smith prepares to tell the story of the L.A. riots in the reimagined production of Twilight...continuing her commitment to using theatre as a forum for conversation. 

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