Actress, playwright visits college

By Lauren Kelly

As a part of the ongoing Conversations in the Arts lecture series, renowned actress, playwright, author and educator Anna Deavere Smith came to Columbia on Jan. 27 to discuss diversity in creative expression, as well as the artist’s role in society.

Now in its fifth season, the Conversations in the Arts series invites noteworthy cultural figures who demonstrate the values laid out in Columbia’s mission statement to lecture to the community. In the past, artists such as Lauren Becall, Mary Tyler Moore, James Earl Jones and Julie Andrews have spoken.

Smith spoke at the Film Row Cinema in the 1104 Center, 1104 S. Wabash Ave., in front of a packed audience. Bill Zwecker, a daily columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, moderated the event.

Best known for her unique blend of performance art, Smith was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1996 for “creating a new form of theater-a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.”

Smith is also well-known for her “one-woman shows,” specifically the plays “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Fires in the Mirror.” She has explored the American character in her work for more than 20 years.

She has interviewed thousands of people across the country to research for her roles, in which she recites their words and mimics their mannerisms and voices. She recreates the characters on stage to reveal major issues and conflicts in America.

Columbia English faculty member Sam Park said Smith’s process both “denaturalizes race” and “invites us to think of ways to engage identities that seem foreign to ours.”

At an open Q&A forum with students before the event, Smith took the stage and was immediately in character as Chicago journalist and author Studs Terkel, who died on Oct. 31, 2008. “You’ve got to question the official truth!” she repeated adamantly, emulating Terkel.

This is what Smith focuses on-the questions, not the answers.

“I don’t have the answer,” she said. “Even in the way that I’ve created the work that I’ve done, it was all about questions. Your education should be more about the questions you come away with, as in quest, than the answers.”

The title of Smith’s lecture, “Engaging the World: the Role of the Artist in Society,” may hint at how she sees the purpose of her work.

Known for taking on heavy issues like race relations, many people have said her work is socially and politically motivated.

“One of the things we can do as artists is to try to give voice and form to these moments of transformation,” Smith said. “We are certainly in a moment of transformation.”

Smith encouraged artistic expression and diversity, saying, “We would want our art to be as strong as our government, because democracy depends on freedom of expression. It is of great concern to me that we have not been able to deliver [diversity] to the creative world and the art world or even the world of journalism.”

Smith again posed a question to the audience. “At this point in history, do we have a diversity of opinions? Do we have a diversity of cultural backgrounds?” Smith asked.

Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs, was present at the forum with students and commented on diversity at Columbia.

“Without our diversity, we cannot provide you the education you need to go out and author the culture of your age,” he said. “If you look around Columbia, that commitment to diversity can be seen in many messy, but compelling ways.”

Some of Smith’s plays are used as texts for courses in the theater department at Columbia, including Cecilie O’Reilly’s Women Playwrights course.

O’Reilly said that she sees Smith’s work as a vehicle for students and as an opportunity to recreate people and also learn about themselves.

As a message to students and aspiring artists, Smith’s most recent book, Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts, gives guidance and insight to young adults pursuing the arts.

The last Conversations in the Arts lecture this season will be on April 30, when urban studies theorist Richard Florida will discuss “creative class” and its importance in urban regeneration.

To find out more information about the Conversations in the Arts lecture series, visit