Anna Deavere Smith, University Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with an affiliated appointment at NYU School of Law, has been named the 19th winner of the prestigious Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. The award, given annually as a legacy from the legendary film and stage actresses, recognizes an individual as a trailblazer in the arts who has redefined their art and pushed the boundaries of excellence in their field. The honor comes with a $300,000 cash prize. Smith will receive the Gish Prize Feb. 13 at a private event in New York City.
Established in 1994 by the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize Trust, the Gish Prize is given annually to “a man or woman who has made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” In her will, Lillian Gish stated: “It is my desire, by establishing this prize, to give recipients of the prize the recognition they deserve, to bring attention to their contributions to society and encourage others to follow in their path.” The Gish Prize is one of the largest monetary awards in the arts. Past recipients have shaped the cultural landscape in drama, music, dance, art, architecture, lighting design, film and literature.
“The Gish Prize provides credibility and recognition for artists who invented a new path for themselves and their work,” said Smith. “The Gish sisters leave an enduring lesson for all artists that forging their own a path is worth the effort. I am deeply honored and can't imagine a greater honor than having my name linked with the incomparable Dorothy and Lillian Gish.”
Playwright, actress, author, and educator Anna Deavere Smith first achieved acclaim with her one-woman theater works Fires in the Mirror, which dealt with the 1991 Crown Heights riot in New York; and Twilight: Los Angeles, about the violence surrounding the 1992 Rodney King case. On the basis of extensive interviews and research, Smith transformed herself on stage into an entire community of witnesses and commentators, creating an almost unprecedented “blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie” in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, which presented her in 1996 with one of its “genius grant” fellowships. Smith considers these and her other one-woman shows, which began in the 1980s, to be part of a series entitled On the Road: A Search for American Character. Her most recent such exploration, Let Me Down Easy (2008-2012), was on the subject of health care.
Smith is most recognizable in popular culture as Gloria Akalitus on the Showtime television series Nurse Jackie and as Nancy McNally on NBC’s The West Wing. She has been featured in several films, among them The American President, The Human Stain, Life Support, and Rachel Getting Married. Film versions of Fires in the Mirror, Twilight: Los Angeles and Let Me Down Easy have been broadcast on PBS.
Her writings include the books Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines and Letters to a Young Artist, as well as articles for the The New York Times, Newsweek, The New Yorker, O Magazine, Elle, Essence and The Drama Review, among other publications.
She has been an artist in residence with The Ford Foundation, MTV Networks, The Aspen Institute, and San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, among other institutions. She is the founder of Anna Deavere Smith Works, Inc., which brings together artists, thinkers, and activists across disciplines with the goal of cultivating artistic excellence that embraces contemporary social issues. She has received two Tony Award nominations, an Obie, a Drama Desk Award, a Special Citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle and numerous honorary degrees.