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A conversation with ‘West Wing’ actress Anna Deavere Smith

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, best known for her roles on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, visited St. Olaf College April 3-4 to receive an honorary degree.

While on campus, she held a workshop for students on “The Art of Listening” and delivered a presentation/performance in Boe Chapel open to the community.

She also took time to sit down with student writer Joshua Qualls ’19 to discuss the power of art, combating stereotypes, and the way TV roles have changed between the character she played on The West Wing 20 years ago and the one she plays on Black-ish today.

Read their conversation below.

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith as she receives an honorary degree from St. Olaf during an April 4 convocation in Boe Memorial Chapel.

When you speak on a college campus, what message do you want people to take away?
There are many things I want to be taken away, of course, but I think the main thing is that the artist is a figure who can engage with society and the world. I think that the power of art can be underrated, so I encourage students that it’s indeed powerful.

Why is theater important in today’s social climate?
I never like to overemphasize the arts, because there are many things that are important in today’s social climate. I think the most important thing right now is education, especially since public education is in big trouble. I think that the artist can help in ways that education might be failing, like being able to look at complicated things and translate them in simpler terms, making them easier to digest.

Moreover, art is able to bring joy and pleasure, which is a good antidote to despair and difficult or controversial topics. It also creates community and draws people together, which is essential in hard times.

Anna Deavere Smith speaks to community members in an on-campus presentation hosted by St. Olaf Assistant to the President for Institutional Diversity Bruce King.

From being on The West Wing 20 years ago to Black-ish today, how have you seen political and racial commentary change in TV?
The West Wing was a phenomenon of its time. A large part of it was due to Aaron Sorkin (the writer). He offered an alternative White House that renders the world in a simpler and entertaining way. It activates our desire systems and brings us closer together and creates intimacy.

Now Black-ish is a whole different thing. It’s a comedy, it’s in a house, in a home. Again, it’s about writing. The writers are able to involve the audience in real-world problems that are sometimes overwhelming dilemmas but are brought down into the view of a household, which makes it easier to understand.

But in terms of another political show like The West Wing, I’m on a political show now called For the People. Set in the United States District Court in the southern district of New York, it’s a TV show about public attorneys and public defenders, people who are on opposite sides of the aisle. I think it’s great to have an opportunity to see how people negotiate our differences.

Overall, I think TV and movies have an enormous influence, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not for the better at all, but what remains is that TV and movies affect what people decide to do with their lives. I was teaching law school at NYU, and I met a student who was basing his whole reason for being a lawyer off of Denzel Washington’s performance in Philadelphia.

Often times people assign stereotypes to other ethnicities by what they see on TV or stage. A lot of your work has been to combat these stereotypes. Have you seen progress?
There are many more opportunities for producing and writing today, and it’s amazing the different perspectives that can be viewed. There are so many new ways of thinking about things.

Don’t get me wrong, I never want to underestimate the people who came before me. So many black actors were given so little but were able to do so much with what they were given. I love seeing the first ring of African-American actors who were able to do so much more than just stereotypes.

However, we also find out about things that almost happened. At one point in the early 20th century, a group of black actors were about to have their own studio but it, unfortunately, fell apart before it launched. Sometimes it’s not “Look how far we’ve come” — sometimes it almost happened but for some reason or another didn’t. But I do think that there’s a lot more opportunity today.

Anna Deavere Smith speaks at the St. Olaf honorary degree convocation held in Boe Memorial Chapel April 4.

What do you have to say to young students who aspire to be artists?
I see a lot of young people who are infatuated with fame and money when it comes to art, which is not really all that realistic because it’s a profession that is as selective as professions like music or medicine — and I’d even argue it’s more selective because it’s so subjective.

I also think some of the values are not that great. Just because there’s a lot of opportunities doesn’t mean it makes us better. There aren’t that many TV shows or movies that encourage us to be kind, caring, or fair. It focuses on looks and power, and oftentimes not good power. There are other types of power that can be utilized in everyday life to benefit people other than ourselves.