Anna Deavere Smith is a well-known actress and scholar. (Photo courtesy of annadeaveresmithprojects.net)
Anna Deavere Smith will be the primary speaker-performer at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) 2015 Jefferson Lecture, 7:30 p.m. April 6 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the District. Smith, a Baltimore native who has appeared on televisions shows such as the West Wing and Nurse Jackie, earned a National Humanities Medal in 2012 from President Obama and is excited about the engagement.
“I am honored that I was asked to do this,” Smith said. “It is a testament to my work as an artist.”
The lecture is among the highest honors that the federal government can bestow for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities. Past Jefferson lecturers include scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., author Toni Morrison, and playwright Arthur Miller. The engagement carries a $10,000 honorarium.
William Adams, chairman of the NEH, said that Smith is the right artist for the event. “Anna Deavere Smith is a remarkable chronicler of the human character and condition,” Adams said. “In her examination of such thorny subjects as race relations or our feelings about death, she has applied her virtuosic talent to questions that most of us would prefer to avoid.”
Smith said she hopes her performance reaches out to African Americans and other people of color. Smith is active in The Pipeline Project, which explores the “school-to-prison pipeline” that puts low-income and minority students out of the educational track and into the criminal justice system. “While some African Americans are affluent, many people are in poverty,” she said. “We see the problems and we see the causes. We need the will that we had in the 1960s to solve these problems.”
Smith’s lecture will be hosted by the Congressional Humanities Caucus, which is co-chaired by U.S. Reps. David Price (D-N.C.) and Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) and includes Black members such as Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant Democratic leader. Smith is aware of the perception among some lawmakers that funding the humanities should not be as important as supporting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives, but she is not deterred.
“We need to champion the arts and the humanities on every level of education,” she said. “We need skills but we also need meaning. We have a need for the humanities in the public space.”