Renowned playwright, actress and professor Anna Deavere Smith spoke to an enthusiastic crowd Monday evening as the first Stanford Distinguished Professor of the year. Her appearance, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences Center for the Humanities, captivated the sold-out crowd in Gusman Concert Hall.
Smith might be best known to the masses for her work in “The West Wing” or “Nurse Jackie,” but she is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Tony Award nominee for her plays “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.”
Her lecture, entitled “The Scientist and the Healer: Doctor-Patient Relationships” was less a traditional speech and more of an abridged look at her latest play “Let Me Down Easy,” which explores the often undignified experiences of real people with life, death and the healthcare system.
Smith was funny, candid and often heart-wrenching in her portrayals of real people whom she’s interviewed over the years, numbering 320 on three continents. Her goal, she said, was to “absorb America by absorbing the words of the people of this country.”
She doesn’t impersonate interviewees as much as embody them, using her voice to channel them. She relayed the words of scientific pioneers, cancer patients, a frustrated doctor and even the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, among others. One of her most touching portrayals was that of a woman running an orphanage for AIDS victims in South Africa, a performance that left the auditorium absolutely silent.
Smith later took questions from the audience, a mix of University of Miami students, medical professionals, faculty members and the South Florida community at large. She spoke on discussing her motives with interview subjects, her technique as an artist and her hopes for the world becoming more fair.
She has tremendous belief in “y’all,” she said, speaking mainly to the students present. They have a “tremendous opportunity to help people who have less than we do.”
Junior Josh Kornfield, an avid fan of Smith’s work on “The West Wing,” gushed about her appearance afterward. “I considered myself a fan before seeing her tonight, but I had no true appreciation for the extent of her talent,” he said. “It was as if she emptied herself to become a vessel for her characters.”
Despite all the fame and accolades, Smith remains extremely grounded and determined.
“Really,” she said, “I’m just looking to hear how people talk.”
Sarah Pilchick may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org