Anna Deavere Smith wins $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize

Anna Deavere Smith in "Let Me Down Easy" in 2011. Smith has been awarded the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for artists for 2012.
(Joan Marcus)

Anna Deavere Smith, famed for creating one-woman, documentary theater pieces about taut social issues in which she portrays multiple people she’s interviewed, has won the $300,000 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the most lucrative awards in the arts and literature.

The annual career-achievement award, initiated in 1994 when Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry was the first recipient, is for “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s understanding and enjoyment of life.”


It was created under the will of Lillian Gish, whose long career -- including roles alongside her younger sister, Dorothy -- began as one of Hollywood’s first superstar actresses. The awards have tended not to favor actors, however: Smith and Robert Redford, the 2008 recipient, are the only ones among the 19 winners. The only playwright to have won besides Smith is Arthur Miller.

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In a written announcement of the award Friday, Smith said: “The Gish Prize provides credibility and recognition for artists who invented a new path for themselves and their work. 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.”

It’s not quite the biggest cash prize Smith has won; in 1996, she received a $280,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” that was paid over five years and would be worth about $394,000 today.


Smith received 1994 Tony nominations for best actress and best play for “Twilight: Los Angeles,” her docu-drama about the Rodney King riots of 1992, and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “Fires in the Mirror,” about the rioting in 1991 involving blacks and Orthodox Jews in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Her timing may have been a little off for the best-play Tony and Pulitzer – she lost both times to Tony Kushner’s acclaimed AIDS drama “Angels in America.”

The Gish Prize solicits open nominations via its website. From those, 30 finalists were culled, and a five-member panel that included choreographer Garth Fagen, artist George Negroponte, a New York City performing arts executive and officials of the Guggenheim Foundation and Ford Foundation chose Smith. She joins a stable of past honorees who are mainly household names, including Bob Dylan, Ornette Coleman, Ingmar Bergman, Isabel Allende, Merce Cunningham, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Bill T. Jones and Pete Seeger.


Smith’s most recent play, “Let Me Down Easy,” concerned issues of illness and dying amid the problem-plagued U.S. healthcare system; the interviewees she portrayed included two prominent cancer patients, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and the now-disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Its tour included a 2011 run at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Smith is a professor in NYU’s Performance Studies department and has had numerous film and television roles, including recurring parts in “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing.” She’ll receive her award Feb. 13 at a private event in New York City.



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