Most people may recognize actress Anna Deavere Smith from her roles on “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing.” However, Smith, a MacArthur fellowship recipient, is best known for her one-woman, multicharacter shows that tackle injustice in its many forms. Smith was in town last month as a guest speaker at the inauguration of Emerson College’s new president, Lee Pelton.
BOOKS: What have you recently that stood out?
DEAVERE SMITH: I don’t read much for pleasure. I read primarily related to my projects. I’m just starting to build a project. For that, I read Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer,” a wonderful book. It’s about how to heal somebody, but not physically healing, spiritual healing. I’d have to go back many years to think of something that hit me as hard as this little book. I know . . . it was the book “Dibs In Search of Self” by Virginia Axline. It’s about an autistic child, who turns out to be brilliant. I had to read it in a psychology class. I was an English major, and that’s the one I remember. At that time in my life, when I was not sure what I was going to do, I was attracted to the possibility that someone could make a big difference like that.
BOOKS: What else have you been reading as you start this project?
DEAVERE SMITH: I also read Martha Nussbaum’s “Not for Profit,” which is a really interesting book about the state of the humanities right now. And Roni Horn gave me one of her books, “Another Water,” in which she took photographs over time of the Thames River. She combined them with reports from the London police of people who had jumped in the river. It’s very powerful because it’s just the facts juxtaposed against these beautiful images. One of my husband’s colleagues, physician Eric Manheimer, wrote a book called “Twelve Patients,” in which there’s a long account of a woman who was extremely overweight from a family with four generations of obesity. I’m interested in how obesity has over taken our culture more and more.
BOOKS: Is there an author you find yourself returning to over and over?
DEAVERE SMITH: Certainly Martin Buber’s “I and Thou.” I have been using “I and Thou” in my classes because it’s about the hard work we all have to do we aren’t turning another human being into an “it.”
BOOKS: What did you read for your project about health care?
DEAVERE SMITH: Philip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families” about Rwanda and Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell” about genocide. I also read Lance Armstrong’s book with Sally Jenkins, “It’s Not About the Bike,” because he is a character in that play.
BOOKS: How do you find the books for your research?
DEAVERE SMITH: It’s because I’m going to be talking to somebody, and I’ve got to read their book to be able to talk to them. Once I made a play about Washington D.C. I interviewed almost 500 people, most of whom had written a book. I had a research assistant who could read a book a day. I needed some help. That project that introduced me to great books about Thomas Jefferson and his slave and mistress, Sally Hemmings. I had to read Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia.” That was pretty horrifying.
BOOKS: Did you realize you were getting yourself into that much reading?
DEAVERE SMITH: No! I thought it would be really cool to travel on the campaign trail, which I did with both Dole and Clinton. I was sorry I hadn’t read Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72” until after that project. My whole approach to Washington was to pass as a White House journalist. Here was Thompson wearing whatever he wanted, drinking booze, doing whatever he wanted.