Courage Prize Recipient, 2017

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 Fires, Twilight 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 Jackie, Black-ish, The West Wing, The American President, Rachel Getting Married and Philadelphia. She is the author of Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines.

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