Anna Deavere Smith, a MacArthur “genius” whose skills as deep-dive reporter, canny mimic and social activist have merged in such ground-breaking theatrical works as Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; Fires In The Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities and the recent Notes From the Field: Doing Time In Education, has received the 35th George Polk Career Award, one of the top awards in journalism.
Notes From The Field used in-depth interviews with politicians, religious figures, students, teachers and convicts to draw a direct line from de facto segregation in the U.S. education system to the epidemic of young black males in prison. It ranked high on the many critics’ Top 10 lists for last season. Deavere Smith’s earlier works have toured widely and been seen in acclaimed public television films. (In addition, she’s known for her regular appearances on The West Wing, where she played Dr. Nancy McNally, and Nurse Jackie, on which she played Gloria Akalitus, as well as on Blackish and Madame Secretary.)
Call it the New New Journalism: Deavere Smith’s documentary-style uniquely and powerfully weaves disparate voices into kaleidoscopic tapestries that illuminate some of the most explosive issues of the time. Although testimonial theater is a time-honored genre, Smith’s solo performances transcend the form, perhaps because she possesses the seasoned reporter’s gift for listening acutely without judging and letting the words of those living through a crisis to speak for themselves. And yet there is no doubt about the sense of tragedy she conveys in her investigations of fractures in the social veneer, whether after the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, the riots in New York City or the plight of young men abandoned by an uninterested educational system.
“This was not a traditional choice for us, because she doesn’t fit neatly in the category of journalist. ” John Darnton, curator of the Polk Awards and a retired New York Times editor and reporter, told Deadline in a telephone interview Monday. “But in stepping back a bit, we realized she’s first of all a reporter in the way she goes about researching her topic. A dozen of us spend a lot of time debating the question of who should get the career award, but in this case it sailed right through. We all agreed.”
The Polk Awards, which include citations for international, national and local reporting across various media, are administered by Long Island University and commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.