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Anna Deavere Smith mines for meaning in 'uhhs,' 'you knows'

“Umm” “err” “you know” and Anna Deavere Smith on why they matter

The Baltimore-born writer and performer Anna Deavere Smith looks for the places in language where the intellect breaks down and raw feeling takes over.

Nearly always, she finds it in the "uhhs," "you knows," sentence fragments and the other stuff that most interviewers consider to be extraneous and — mistakenly, Smith thinks — nearly always remove.

Smith leaves every syllable in during her riveting, one-performer shows, which channel the essences of dozens of her real-life interview subjects, from a cowboy to a Korean-American grocer. The shows explore such hot-button topics as the American health care system ( "Let Me Down Easy") or the Los Angeles race riots ("Twilight: Los Angeles 1992") by breaking down complex issues into personal stories.

"I don't want completed, perfect sentences," Smith said during a recent phone chat. "I need the sentence to be disrupted by something that's more than thought and more than intellect."

(Or at least, that's a pared-down and edited version that attempts to capture the gist of what Smith actually said.)

Not that the 65-year-old Smith isn't perfectly happy to occasionally recite sentences written for her by other people. Television viewers know her as the uptight hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on Showtime's black comedy "Nurse Jackie" for seven seasons, and before that, as National Security Adviser Nancy McNally on the NBC political drama "The West Wing."

But it's Smith's original theater pieces that have won her the biggest plaudits, ranging from Drama Desk Awards to a 1996 MacArthur Fellowship. In 2013, Smith picked up the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which carries a $300,000 award, and received a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama.

On Monday, she'll deliver the 44th annual Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is described as the federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Previous lecturers include film director Martin Scorsese, novelist John Updike, and historian and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Smith's speech is titled "On the Road: A Search for American Character."

I'm guessing that the Jefferson Lecture will include both a traditional speaker format, in which you address the audience as yourself, and a performance component in which you excerpt several of your shows.

That's what a lecture is to me. I use performance as a way into ideas. I'm always learning, and I think that the people should be able to speak about their own ideas in their own words.

I try to find the people who have something to say that is so important that they're willing to scream it from the mountaintops, and then I try to get out of their way. When I'm doing an interview, I try to find questions to ask that will allow me to not say a whole lot.

I had a great videographer with me when I was in Philadelphia interviewing people for my current project. After about 20 interviews, he said, "You should write a book called 'Say More About That.'"

When I talk too much and I listen to the interview afterward, I can't bear it. I have to fast-forward through it.

You've been chronicling the American character for nearly four decades. What have you found out?

When I graduated from college, one of my best friends gave me a plank of wood. On it, she'd carved, "Fame is a vapor. Riches take wings. Only one thing endures: character."

It gave me a lot of courage, and for 25 years I took it with me wherever I lived. That enduring quality is what I call "character" and what interests me about America.

I do believe that many Americans, even in distress and even in the most crisis-filled moments, really are trying to form a more perfect union.

America is very flawed, but when this country is working, everyone matters. Everyone has a chance. I think that's the best of America. That's what people are breaking down our borders for.

You got a clump of big awards in the 1990s, and then another big clump just recently. But it's not as though you stopped working during the intervening years. Why now, do you think?

I don't know. Why do you think?

Maybe it just takes time for a person's work to settle into the culture. My mother once said to me, "You might be ahead of your time."

I was lucky to get the MacArthur [Fellowship] right when I was starting out, and I certainly didn't expect to be chosen to do this lecture. I feel very humbled by it, very grateful.

Tell me about the current show you're working on about the school-to-prison pipeline.

Former President Lyndon Johnson talked about the "Fifth Freedom" being the freedom from ignorance. I got interested in taking a look at disadvantaged kids who are pushed out of school and end up incarcerated, and who are disproportionately African-American, Latino and Native American.

This project is taking me back to my beginnings. My mother taught really, really poor kids in East Baltimore. I've been teaching since 1973, and as the income gap has widened over time, my students have become more and more elite. Now I only teach very privileged people who can pay $60,000 a year to go to school.

Recently, we'd just finished filming the seventh season of "Nurse Jackie." I was sitting next to the actress Eve Best, and I told her I just heard the most incredible story.

There was a kid in a Baltimore school who had peed in a water cooler, and he was going to be arrested. That just blew my mind.

I'm pretty no-nonsense, and if I'd been in that school, I wouldn't have been happy about it, but I'm not entirely sure I would have called the police.

Eve laughed and said, "Whatever happened to mischief?"

Rich kids get into mischief, and poor kids go to jail.

Since we're talking about "Nurse Jackie," the final season starts airing next week, and show runner Clyde Phillips has promised an "authentic" ending. What might that mean? Also, does your conversation with Eve Best mean that her character, Dr. Eleanor O'Hara, will return to the show this year?

[Chuckling.] I didn't tell you that, but you might have figured it out another way.

An authentic ending means that if you are addicted to drugs, it's kind of a no-exit. But that's all I'm going to say about that.

It was an incredible experience to be on that show. After we had wrapped for the day, the camera crew would burst into this outrageous ovation like you don't even get on stage. It was very celebratory, very festive.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

Anna Deavere Smith will deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities' 44th annual Jefferson Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW, Washington. Free. Standby seating will be available. For details, go to neh.gov or call 800-634-1121.

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