Listening Is Her Superpower

The West Wing and Nurse Jackie brought Anna Deavere Smith millions of fans. Her work for the stage has been groundbreaking: focusing on moments of crisis and catching stories.

Anna Deavere Smith let out a roaring, maniacal laugh, filling SCU’s Louis B. Mayer Theatre with the sound of Taos Proctor, a 6-foot-4 Yurok Indian fisherman who had been kicked out of schools as a kid, sent to reform school, and incarcerated in state prisons, including San Quentin.

“Prison don’t do nothin’ but make you a worser person. Got me so I didn’t care if I hurt somebody,” said the real-life character embodied by Smith in Notes from the Field, the celebrated actress and playwright’s latest work of documentary theatre. It’s about what’s come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline, kids of color who are set up to fail in school and end up behind bars.

“You stab somebody, you stab ’em five or ten times, you don’t care. You know, I mean, they’re worthless, who cares?” bellowed Smith, who transformed herself into the boastful Proctor and other vivid characters when she performed excerpts from the show in April as part of her fruitful SCU residency. Expressing character through timbre and cadence and gesture, she morphed into a sharp, funny Salvadoran-American mother trying to keep her kids away from saggy pants, gangs, and crime; the passionate, young African-American Mayor Michael Tubbs of troubled Stockton, California, decrying the numbing routineness of violence; a fed-up young man arrested for torching a police car during the Freddie Gray riots in Smith’s hometown of Baltimore, Maryland; Congressman John Lewis, describing a tearful reconciliation in Montgomery, Alabama’s First Baptist Church with a young, white police chief asking forgiveness for past injustices.


The University’s 2016–17 Frank Sinatra Scholar-Artist-in-Residence, Smith brought her keen mind and generous spirit to SCU during intensive spurts throughout the winter and spring. She spoke to the campus community about telling stories and listening—she tunes into how people say what they say, the sound and rhythms of their speech—and called for active civic engagement with the world. And she worked one-on-one with students creating their own documentary play, Welcome to Claradise, which came to focus on several incidents on campus last fall that stirred debate about diversity, intolerance, and inclusiveness. Among the troubles: vandalism of an exhibit commemorating the murder of 43 Mexican students; and vandalism by two students who drew a bloody swastika in a residence hall elevator. Famed for her roles on the TV shows The West Wing and Nurse Jackie and in movies like Philadelphia, Smith is esteemed for her pioneering multivoice-and-viewpoint solo theater pieces that explore such explosive subjects as the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King verdict (Twilight: Los Angeles); the tension between black and Jewish residents of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights in the wake of the ’91 riots there (Fires in the Mirror); and health care, the act of dying, and the resilient human spirit (Let Me Down Easy).

She creates these works solely with the words of the people she has interviewed, weaving many voices into a dramatic tapestry that illuminates the subject in all its complexity. She told an SCU audience in January that she set out “to become America word for word,” by “putting myself in other people’s words the way you think about putting yourself in people’s shoes.”

Introducing Smith before her April performance with jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, Theatre Professor Aldo Billingslea, who directed Welcome to Claradise, put it this way: “Listening is the superpower of Anna Deavere Smith. She’s built a career on going into locations in a moment of crisis, where people have often stopped listening to each other. And she’s made a practice of listening to all sides and to bringing those voices to life in such a compelling way that all sides can hear and be heard. It’s a superpower sorely needed today.”

Students performing Claradise
Smith found moments of grace working with “the dynamic trio” of Aldo Billingslea, Brian Thorstenson, and choreographer David Popalisky, as well as SCU students: “It made me joyous to spend time with those students in Claradise, to feel their passion and their will to do something good for the University.”/ Photo by Charles Barry

Smith’s method of inquiry inspired the play created by students in a seminar taught by Lecturer Brian Thorstenson. Thorstenson wrote Claradise from dozens of interviews with people across campus: students and groundskeepers, faculty, food service staff, SCU President Michael Engh, S.J. They were asked about moments of grace and moments of disruption that they had experienced in this serene place.

The students didn’t know what the story would be when they began interviewing people last fall. But after those disturbing acts on campus in October, the questions about disruption and grace became particularly relevant.


Smith, a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where she is founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, was heartened to learn that social justice is part of Santa Clara’s mission. “The country needs a more enriched moral imagination,” she said. “Art institutions have convening power. It’s an opportunity for people to come together and talk about things they wouldn’t otherwise be discussing and practice the potential of being an active citizenry.”

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