Actress-Writer Anne Deavere Smith Is Recipient of $300,000 Gish Prize

News   Actress-Writer Anne Deavere Smith Is Recipient of $300,000 Gish Prize
The Gish Prize Trust announced on Jan. 18 that playwright, actress, author and educator Anna Deavere Smith has been selected to receive the 19th annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, given annually as a legacy from the film and stage actresses.

Let Me Down Easy star-creator Anna Deavere Smith
Let Me Down Easy star-creator Anna Deavere Smith Photo by Joan Marcus

Established in 1994, it is one of the largest awards in the arts, with a cash value of approximately $300,000. The Prize's mission "has helped to support artists who have pushed the boundaries of their art forms and contributed to social change, therefore paving the way for future generations of artistic innovators," according to the Trust.

Recipients of the Gish Prize are nominated by members of the arts community and selected by a committee of arts professionals. Under guidelines set forth in the will of Lillian Gish, the prize is awarded "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."

Smith was selected from among a group of 30 finalists from the fields of dance, visual art, music, theatre, film, writing, architecture and interdisciplinary arts.

Smith stated, "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."

The 19th annual Gish Prize will be presented to Anna Deavere Smith on Feb. 13 in New York City at a private event hosted by JP Morgan and attended by leaders of the arts community. The ceremony will include remarks by Glenn D. Lowry, director of The Museum of Modern Art; a special performance by Ethan Philbrick, a student of Anna Deavere Smith and Assistant Curator at Anna Deavere Smith Works; and a performance by choreographer Elizabeth Streb.

Playwright, actress, author and educator Anna Deavere Smith first achieved acclaim with her one-woman theatre works Fires in the Mirror (about 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 transforms 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 the above titles and her other one-woman shows, which began in the 1980s, to be a series, titled "On the Road: A Search for American Character." Her most recent such exploration was Let Me Down Easy (2008-2012), on the subject of health care.

Smith also plays 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, including "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.

Smith is a professor at New York University's Performance Studies Department. She is the founder of Anna Deavere Smith Works, Inc., "to bring together artists, thinkers and activists across disciplines with the goal of cultivating artistic excellence that embraces contemporary social issues."

Smith 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.

Past Gish Prize recipients, from 1994 through 2011, are Frank Gehry, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Wilson, Bob Dylan, Isabel Allende, Arthur Miller, Merce Cunningham, Jennifer Tipton, Lloyd Richards, Bill T. Jones, Ornette Coleman, Peter Sellars, Shirin Neshat, Laurie Anderson, Robert Redford, Pete Seeger, Chinua Achebe and Trisha Brown.

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Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish followed their mother onto the stage at an early age. The older of the two sisters, Lillian took her first theatrical curtain call in 1902 at the age of eight in the play In Convict's Stripes. In 1912, the sisters' childhood friend Mary Pickford introduced them to D.W. Griffith, who launched their film careers. Lillian would become one of America's best-loved actresses and is considered by many the First Lady of the Screen. In her 85-year career, she appeared in more than 100 films — from Griffith's "An Unseen Enemy" (1912) to Lindsay Anderson's "The Whales of August" (1987) — and also took numerous roles in television and on stage. Dorothy Gish began her stage career at the age of four and also went on to make more than 100 films, many of them with Lillian. Dorothy's early work in film highlighted her keen sense of humor, bringing her acclaim as a star of comedy. At the end of the silent era, she turned her attention to the stage, where Success in Young Love brought her accolades with New York audiences, on the road and subsequently in London. In 1939 Dorothy and Lillian each played Vinnie Day, wife of Clarence Day, Sr., in two extensive American road company productions of Life with Father. Dorothy returned to film and television in the 1950s. Dorothy Gish died in 1968 with her sister by her side. Lillian Gish died in 1993 at the age of 99. Both sisters left the bulk of their estates to the arts, including a trust for the formation of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

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