Anna Deavere Smith
Smith in 1999
Born (1950-09-18) September 18, 1950 (age 73)[1]
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
EducationArcadia University (BA)
American Conservatory Theater (MFA)
Occupation(s)Actress, playwright, professor
WebsiteOfficial website
Projects website

Anna Deavere Smith (born September 18, 1950) is an American actress, playwright, and professor. She is known for her roles as National Security Advisor Dr. Nancy McNally in The West Wing (2000–06), hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in the Showtime series Nurse Jackie (2009–15), and as U.S. District Court Clerk Tina Krissman on the ABC show For the People (2018–19).

Smith is a recipient of The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2013). In 2015 she was selected as the Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is the founding director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University.[2][3]

Early life

Smith was born in 1950 into an African-American family in Baltimore, Maryland,[4] the daughter of Anna Rosalind (née Young), an elementary school principal, and Deaver Young Smith Jr., a coffee merchant.[5][6] She has four younger siblings.[7] She started attending school shortly after the city had started integrating the public schools, and attended both majority-black and majority-white schools during her lower years.[6] Smith is an alumna of the historic Western High School, an all-girls school.[8]

Smith studied acting at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), where she was one of seven African-American women in her class, graduating in 1971. During her college career, she started to identify as Black.[6][7][9] Later she went to the West Coast for graduate work, receiving an M.F.A. in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, California.[9]



At the beginning of her career, Smith appeared in a wide range of stage productions, including the role of Mistress Quickly in an Off-Broadway production of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor with the Riverside Shakespeare Company,[10] produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival. This production was set in New Orleans in post-Civil War America. For the role, Smith transformed herself into a "Cajun voodoo woman." She used her ability to take on other characters in her future work.[11] From being in a variety of situations and in a kind of outsider status, she was a close observer of people and their language. She later told Henry Louis Gates Jr., when appearing on his show Finding Your Roots, that she had difficulty getting jobs at the beginning of her acting career because people did not know how to categorize her in terms of ethnicity for casting.[6]

Smith is best known as a playwright and actress for her "documentary theatre" style, also called verbatim theatre, in plays such as Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1993). Both featured Smith as the sole performer of multiple and diverse characters, based on interviews she had conducted with numerous residents and commentators in the two cities where riots took place. For these works, she won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show two years in a row. She interviewed more than 100 people as part of her creation of Fires in the Mirror, which dealt with the 1991 Crown Heights riot. In 1992, she interviewed some 300 people as part of her research for creating Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which dealt with the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, in events captured on tape.[12] Both of these plays were constructed using material solely from interviews.[12]

Smith's plays House Arrest (2000) and Let Me Down Easy (2008) were also created in this style. Let Me Down Easy, which explored the resiliency and vulnerability of the human body, debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in January 2008.[13] It was also performed at the American Repertory Theater in September and October 2008.[14] A revised version of the show had its New York City premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre in October 2009.[15] It enjoyed favorable reviews[16] and an extension into January 2010.[17] It was a featured program as part of PBS's Great Performances series on January 13, 2012.

Smith debuted her one-woman play The Arizona Project in Phoenix, Arizona, in November 2008. The piece, which explored "women's relationships to justice and the law," was commissioned by Bruce Ferguson, director of Future Arts Research (F.A.R.), a new artist-driven research program at Arizona State University in Phoenix.[18]

In 2009, Smith was an artist-in-residence with the Center for American Progress.[19]

In Spring 2012, Smith was the first artist-in-residence at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, a program founded by the Very Rev Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, who shared Smith's vision of "bringing together art and religion".[20][21][22]

Commissioned by Grace Cathedral and the Cockayne Fund, Smith wrote and performed the play, On Grace, based on interviews relating to the meaning of God's grace.[23][24] The performances were accompanied by American cellist Joshua Roman.[25]

Film and television

Stephen Gaghan and Smith at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival

Smith has appeared in several films, including Philadelphia (1993), Dave (1993), The American President (1995), Rent (2005), and Rachel Getting Married (2008).

She had recurring roles in the TV series The Practice (2000) and as Dr. Nancy McNally on The West Wing (2000–06). Smith also appeared as hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in the Showtime dark comedy series Nurse Jackie, which premiered in June 2009.[26] Early in her television career, she appeared on the long-running soap opera All My Children in the recurring role of "Hazel the shampoo girl".

In February 2014, Smith appeared as a mentor in Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Masterclass, part of the HBO documentary series Masterclass.[27]

In 2015, Smith appeared as a guest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., on the PBS television show Finding Your Roots. Her ancestry in America was revealed to her for the first time. She was descended from a long line of free people of color. The most striking facts were linked to her great-great-grandfather, Basil Biggs, who was born in 1820 in Maryland. He and his wife Mary were listed in the 1850 U.S. census to be free. His occupation was listed as veterinarian. In 1858, he moved his wife and four children to Pennsylvania, and chose to settle in Gettysburg. Another newsworthy article was found in The Cleveland Gazette (1892), which referred to Basil Biggs as the "wealthiest Afro-American in Gettysburg," mentioning his great home on 120 acres.[28] 41% of Smith's European ancestry is from Great Britain, with remote Scandinavian, Finnish, Russian, Italian, and Greek.[29]

In early 2017, Smith worked with Melissa McCarthy in the film Can You Ever Forgive Me? In New York City, they filmed one scene together in which their characters briefly reunite for the first time after the long-ago end of their relationship. Smith's character is a university professor of literature. In October 2018, this film was distributed to cinemas by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In 2022, Smith played the supporting role of Maud in the Netflix series Inventing Anna.


Smith teaches in the Department of Art & Public Policy at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. In 1986, she joined the faculty of the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts. From 1990 to 2000, she was a professor in the drama department at Stanford University and prior to that taught at Carnegie Mellon University. She also teaches at NYU School of Law.[30]


In 2000, Smith published her first book, Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics, through Random House. (It was published in paperback in 2001.) In 2006, she released Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts – For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.[30]


As a dramatist, Smith was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for Fires in the Mirror, which won her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show.[31] She was nominated for two Tony Awards in 1994 for Twilight: one for Best Actress and another for Best Play.[9] The play won her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance and a Theatre World Award.[32][33]

Smith was one of the 1996 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the "genius grant."[34] She also won a 2006 Fletcher Foundation Fellowship for her contribution to civil rights issues,[33] as well as a 2008 Matrix Award from the New York Women in Communications, Inc.[35] In 2009, she won a Fellow Award in Theater Arts from United States Artists.[33]

She has received honorary degrees from Loyola Marymount University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania, Spelman College, Arcadia University, Bates College, Smith College, Skidmore College, St. Olaf College, Macalester College, Occidental College, Pratt Institute, Holy Cross College, Haverford College, Wesleyan University, School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University, Colgate University, California State University Sacramento, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Wheelock College, Williams College, Yale University,[36] and the Cooper Union.[32]

The United Solo Theatre Festival board honored her with the award for outstanding solo performer during the inaugural edition in November 2010.[37]

Smith won The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2013), one of the richest prizes in the American arts with a remuneration of $300,000.[38]

In 2013, she received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.[39] In 2015 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected her for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities, delivering a lecture entitled "On the Road: A Search for American Character".[40][41]

She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.[42]



Year Title Role Notes
1982 Soup for One Deborah
1983 Touched Switch Board Operator
1987 Unfinished Business Anna
1993 Dave Mrs. Travis
1993 Philadelphia Anthea Burton
1995 The American President Robin McCall
2000 Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Various Writer and producer; adaptation of Smith's 1994 play
2003 The Human Stain Mrs. Silk
2004 The Manchurian Candidate Political pundit
2005 Cry_Wolf Headmaster Tinsley
2005 Rent Mrs. Jefferson
2007 The Kingdom Maricella Canavesio
2007 Life Support Mrs. Wallace
2008 Rachel Getting Married Carol
2010 Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4 Narrator
2018 Can You Ever Forgive Me? Elaine
2021 Flora & Ulysses Dr. Meescham
2021 Here Today[43] Dr. Vidor
2023 Ghosted Claudia Yates


Year Title Role Notes
1983 All My Children Hazel
1997 American Experience Narrator Episode: "Hawaii's Last Queen"
2000 The Practice Kate Brunner 4 episodes
2000–2006 The West Wing Dr. Nancy McNally 20 episodes
2001 100 Centre Street Ms. Davis Episode: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished"
2001 Life 360 Herself Episode: "Six Degrees of Separation"
2002 Presidio Med Dr. Letty Jordan 4 episodes
2009–2015 Nurse Jackie Gloria Akalitus 78 episodes
2013 The Surgeon General Vice President TV movie
2014 Anna Deavere Smith: A YoungArts Masterclass Herself / Mentor Documentary
2015–2022 Black-ish Alicia 10 episodes
2015 Madam Secretary Attorney General Mary Campbell Episode: "Tamerlane"
2016 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Warden Lucille Fenton Episode: "Nationwide Manhunt"[44]
2016 Legends of Tomorrow Chay-Ara (19th century incarnation) Episode: "The Magnificent Eight"
2016 BoJack Horseman Betty Bruce Episode: "Stop the Presses"
2016 Berlin Station Polygraph Examiner Episode: "False Negative"
2018–2019 For the People Tina Krissman 20 episodes
2020 A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote Nancy McNally TV special
2022 Inventing Anna Maud 8 episodes


Year Title Role Location Notes
1974 Horatio The savage American Conservatory Theater
1976 Alma, the Ghost of Spring Street Marie Laveau La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
1980 Mother Courage and Her Children Kiowa woman / Their children New York Shakespeare Festival
1982–83 On the Road Clear Space Theatre
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
1983 The Merry Wives of Windsor Mistress Quickly Off-Broadway
A Birthday Party and Aunt Julia's Shoes Ward-Nasse Gallery Original poems
Tartuffe Doreen Geva Theatre Center
1984 Charlayne Hunter Gault Ward-Nasse Gallery
Aye, Aye, Aye, I'm Integrated The American Place Theatre
1985 Building Bridges, Not Walls National Conference of Women and the Law
1986 On the Road, ACT American Conservatory Theater
1988 Voices of Bay Area Women Phoenix Theatre, San Francisco
American Conservatory Theater
1988 Chlorophyll Post-Modernism and the Mother Goddess / A Conversation Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre
1992 Fires in the Mirror Various The Public Theater Writer; one-woman show
1994 Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 Various Cort Theatre Writer; one-woman show
1997, 1999 House Arrest Arena Stage
Mark Taper Forum
2008 The Arizona Project Various Herberger Theater Center Writer; one-woman show
2008–10 Let Me Down Easy Various Long Wharf Theatre
American Repertory Theater
Second Stage Theatre
Writer; one-woman show
2014 On Grace Various Harris Theater Writer; collaboration with Joshua Roman
2015 Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity[45] Various One-woman show
Never Givin' Up[46] The Broad Stage One-woman show
Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education — The California Chapter[47] Various Berkeley Repertory Theatre One-woman show
2016 Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education[48] Various American Repertory Theatre One-woman show
Second Stage Theatre One-woman show
Special Citation from the Obie Awards



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  42. ^ "New 2019 Academy Members Announced". April 17, 2019. She was awarded the League of Professional Theatre Women's Rachel Crothers Leadership Award in 2023.
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