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2017 / Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith, an acclaimed actress, playwright, and educator, is the 2017 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

“Anna Deavere Smith has spoken out fearlessly on unpopular truths, and through her art and her unique and distinguished body of work she has advanced public understanding and social progress on issues of fundamental importance,” said the selection committee. “In her distinctive work she has addressed social and civil unrest, confronted racial stereotypes and documented changes in racial identity, sexual politics, and multiculturalism. By combining elements of stagecraft, journalism, storytelling, social commentary, and personal observation, Smith has redefined the role of the artist as an engaged citizen and communicator.”

She has created over 18 one-person shows based on hundreds of interviews, most of which deal with complex social issues. Fires in the Mirror chronicled the viewpoints of people from two different communities, Black and Jewish, connected directly and indirectly to the Crown Heights riots in August 1991. Her next major work, Twilight, covered the unrest in Los Angeles after four police officers were acquitted for beating Rodney King. Smith performed as a police commissioner, rioters, and a juror, among other characters. Like FiresTwilight weaved together monologues constructed from interviews Smith conducted with people involved in and affected by the precipitating event. In Let Me Down Easy, which ran from 2008 through 2010, Smith explored health, medicine, and mortality, as politically charged healthcare debates raged around the country.

Anna Deavere Smith’s newest endeavor, “The Pipeline Project,” centers around her play, “Notes from the Field.” Using her signature form of theater, based on interviews with hundreds of individuals, the play shines a light on the lack of opportunity and resources for young people living in poverty and often suffering from physical and mental health issues — and how these circumstances often lead them into the criminal justice system. “The Pipeline Project” also seeks to extend the conversation on these pressing issues from the theater into America’s communities through audience discussions, public convenings, and other events.

“I am honored to receive the Ridenhour Courage Prize for my work on kids whose lives are obstructed by poverty and the conditions surrounding it,” said Anna Deavere Smith. “The real courage of course belongs to the extraordinary people I met in courtrooms, judges’ chambers, on Indian reservations, in classrooms, in doctor’s offices — even funeral parlors — who are facing those conditions head on and changing lives.”

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.” She has a number of honorary degrees including those from Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Juilliard, and Union Theological Seminary, and was awarded The Radcliffe Medal. She is a recipient of the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Dean’s Medal. She sits on the boards of trustees for the American Museum of National History, the Aspen Institute, The Playwrights Realm, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is University Professor in the department of Art & Public Policy at New York University and is affiliated with the School of Law. She also directs the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University.

She received the National Humanities Medal, presented to her by President Obama in 2013. She was the 2015 Jefferson Lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow for Theatre Arts (for the development of Notes From the Field). She is a MacArthur Fellow and received The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. She is the recipient of two Tony nominations and two Obie Awards. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her play Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities.

Her film and television work include Nurse JackieBlack-ishThe West WingThe American PresidentRachel Getting Married and Philadelphia. She is the author of Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines.

2017 Courage Prize Speech

Transcript of the Courage prize introduction and speeches

HENDRIK HERTZBERG:  Thanks. In the summer of 1992, soon after I’d moved back to New York from Washington, I saw a theater piece called “Fires in the Mirror.” It was about the troubles that had occurred a year earlier in Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Troubles ignited by the violent deaths of Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old child from Guyana, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Jewish student from Australia. It was a terrible, searing episode in the history of New York, an episode whose wounds have yet to heal fully.

“Fires in the Mirror” had a cast of 26 characters, an incredible variety of characters, all ages, all races, all backgrounds, all temperaments. And every single one of them was a real person with a real name who had really spoken the words that stunned and startled and moved all of us in the audience. Those 26 characters were all played by one actor, and their words had been spoken to one interviewer, and the play had been conceived and realized by one dramatist, and that one actor and interviewer and dramatist was Anna Deavere Smith.

None of us had seen anything like it because there is, and was, nothing like it. Nothing, that is, except the works that she herself has created. Works like “Twilight,” examining Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King beatings. Like the Arizona Project about women in the legal and judicial system. Like last year’s “Notes From the Field” which dives deep into the education system in her hometown of Baltimore and is part of what she calls the Pipeline Project, that pipeline being the one that takes too many young men of color from school to prison.

Anna didn’t have to do any of this, by the way. She’s an accomplished actress in mainstream movies like “Philadelphia,” and “Rachel Getting Married,” and TV series like “The West Wing,” and “Blackish.” And if that were all she had ever done, she would have contributed more than her share to the happiness of her fellow creatures. But she has aimed higher and dug deeper and worked harder and explored more bravely. This is a prize for courage, and courage is a quality, a quality of mind and soul and heart that Anna Deavere Smith has in abundance. This courage, as well as audacity in her invention and perfection of a new form of theater, a one-person show in which that one person transforms herself into a succession of persons, speaking their words and their voices with their emotions and in finding their voices, she finds her own.

There’s courage as well as conscience in her choice of the issues she tackles; issues like poverty and racial discrimination and police violence and mass incarceration. And there is courage, as well as empathy, in the way she embraces the humanity of her characters, all of them, and in the way she respects and honors their lived experience, whether she agrees with them or not. And in the way she refuses to judge, let leaves no doubt about her own moral perspective.

Finally, there is courage in insisting on truth. During the present emergency when the very concept of truth is under sustained attack, insisting on truth is an act of resistance. It’s my honor to present the Ridenhour Courage Prize to Anna Deavere Smith.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH:  Thank you so much, thank you. Well, you know, it’s enough to have been presented this by such a classy person as Rick. My friend, Riley, leaned over and said, “Oh, the New Yorker.” But thank you so much, Randy and Hamilton and the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. And I have so many people I could thank for helping me with my work, the kids who go on the road with me, the wonderful directors I’ve had. Nobody’s here, so I just want to thank my friend, Riley Temple, for being here. Friends like Riley are very important when you’re an artist. They’re there to say congratulations when it’s received well, they’re there to take you out to breakfast when it’s received moderately well. And they’re there to just shake their head and go, about the critic who made it very clear that it didn’t go well. So thank you for being here with me, Riley.

You know, when I think about truth in the way we’re thinking about it today, and talking about it and calling for it, and as you know, on the cover of Time magazine, “Is Truth Dead?” I think as a reference back to “Is God Dead,” back in, I guess, the ‘60s, that black and red cover, I think of the truth teller as the person who’s trying to expose something bad, something wrong, something dark. I think of, in fact, a letter that Ron wrote to Congress, he talks about a blackness that is there in Vietnam.

However, I was watching a video of Ron Ridenhour giving a speech in New Orleans, maybe you were there, and very early on in the speech when he talked about his refusal to shoot people who were unarmed while all around him people were shooting children and men and women who were unarmed, I thought– it just hit me. There’s a real goodness in that man. There’s a real goodness in that man. Now, if I were a religious leader, I would be able to take to you about that. I think about my friend in Los Angeles who is in my play on grace, Rabbi David Wolpe at the Sinai Temple who talks about the line between good and evil live inside of all of us. But we must rededicate ourselves to goodness.

And I don’t know how you spent these last holidays, the Christians and the Jews in this room, but it came to me on Good Friday and on Saturday and on Sunday, this is such an important time to rededicate ourselves to goodness. And so I am so pleased to be in this company not just of the truth tellers and the truth seekers, but those who have dedicated parts of themselves to goodness. And when does that happen?

You know, my beat right now is education. Why is it that there are children in this country, black, Native American, Latino, and now I’ve been invited by someone at East Tennessee University to come see the children in Appalachia, white, who can’t get through school, who can’t enjoy the part of America’s promise which is about knowing and enjoying life, to be free from despair and to be full of curiosity. Why is it that we’ve given up on that part of our American promise?

I wasn’t going to perform today. I thought at a — my secretary said, “They were wondering if — because we can’t show pieces of ‘Notes From the Field,’ would you perform?” I said, “It’s a lunch.” However, given the — starting with the invocation from the Reverend Dr. Dyson [applause] and the passionate calls that I have heard here that are not performance but are operatic, the compassionate calls, the passionate and compassionate calls.

So I’m just going to do something for you from my play, “Notes From the Field,” which I think exemplifies the relationship between goodness and truth telling.


You know, so let me just conclude by saying that if I were a religious leader, I would be asking you to rededicate yourself to business. I mean, not to business, to goodness. [laughter] What a slip! I would be asking you to rededicate yourself to goodness, but because I’m an educator and I’ve been teaching for 40 years, I wish that schools would teach children about Ron, and I wish that schools would spend as much time working on goodness that sheds light on courage and truth as they do on words and numbers and so-called facts. Thank you so much for having me with you.