She has performed in film and television as well as on stage. She is probably most recognizable in popular culture as Nancy McNally, the National Security Advisor on NBC's former hit, The West Wing.
However, it is Ms. Smith’s work in the theater that has been her intellectual focus. Looking at controversial events from multiple points of view, Ms. Smith's theater combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through her performance. The New York Times in reviewing her Broadway show Twilight: Los Angeles, about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, said of her performance, "[she is] the ultimate impressionist: she does people's souls." Jack Kroll of Newsweek proclaimed the work "an American Masterpiece." She does hundreds of interviews while creating a play. Using verbatim excerpts of the interviews, she has performed up to as many as 46 people in the course of an evening.
She is University Professor at New York University, where she is appointed in the Tisch School of the Arts, and affiliated with the New York University School of Law. She was Ann O'Day Maples Professor of the Arts at Stanford University where she taught from 1990 – 2000. She also taught at Carnegie Mellon and the University of Southern California.
She recently taught, at the invitation of Oprah Winfrey, at Oprah Winfrey's Leadership Academy For Girls in South Africa.
In 2007, Americans for the Arts presented her with the Kitty Carlisle Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts. She also received the Mayor’s Award for Art and Culture by the Mayor of New York City in 2007. She was the recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher Fellowship in 2006. The fellowship recognizes work by scholars, writers, and artists who address and carry out the broad social goals of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision of 1954. She was twice nominated for the NAACP Image Award. She will receive the prestigious New York Women in Communication's Matrix Award for her remarkable achievements and outstanding leadership roles in her field in Spring 2008.
She has several honorary degrees and medals of recognition – among them those that represent Juilliard, Barnard, Northwestern, Smith, Bates, Bryn Mawr, Wesleyan, Holy Cross, Cooper Union, and Radcliffe College. She is also on the board of the Museum of Modern Art where she chairs the Committee on Film. She is also on the board of the Center for American Progress and of Studio in a School.