Life as art: character study: Anna Deavere Smith as herself.

Author:Ards, Angela

USUALLY, ANNA DEAVERE SMITH IS THE ONE ASKING THE questions, A decade ago, the actress-playwright received a MacArthur "genius" award for pioneering a unique brand of theater, a cross between journalistic reporting and virtuosic acting, which explored race and culture in today's society. She would interview dozens of witnesses to some national political drama, then stitch their stories into insightful one-woman shows where she performed as many 50 personalities in a night. "I was on a quest--to steal a phrase from [19th-century poet] Walt Whitman--to absorb America," Smith says of her innovative method.

As the interviewee, however, she can be a cagey character.

"She prefers phone interviews," her publicist informs, which rules out a face-to-face chat.

"And she'll call you," the publicist adds, which leaves a reporter waiting like a jilted date by a phone that doesn't ring at the appointed hour.

After several crossed wires, attempts to reschedule and hopes almost dashed, one can't be faulted for thinking that the acclaimed actress would really rather not talk today. When Smith finally rings, her singsong voice has a trace of the disheveled professor, but not the diva. In fact, it's as if she's sitting across the kitchen table, sipping a cup of joe for a spell.

In her new book, Letters to a Young Artist, the actress declares that a basic tool in any artist's repertoire is presence: the ability to "hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it." Anna Deavere Smith has presence--in spades.

And the Mentor Goes to...

At the moment, Smith, who lives in New York City, is out at Montauk Point, a seaside town on Long Island's northeastern shore and a once-favorite retreat of Whitman's, a major literary influence. Fittingly, it is also the setting for many of the essays in Letters, an extended correspondence with a fictional young painter, BZ, who has won the actress's mentorship through an auction. A common criticism of the black baby boomers, Smith's generation, is that they failed to mentor subsequent "children"--the grands and great-grands--"of the dream." Some even contend that persistent ills in black communities, from the widening class divide to the equally vast leadership vacuum, stem from this treacherous generation gap. With Letters, Smith steps into the breach.

From different media (napkin scribbles, Blackberry text messages) and locations (in the backs of cabs, by the sea), the jet-setting Smith dispenses advice on what it takes (empathy, discipline) and what it means (studying the human condition) to be an artist. The title echoes German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's classic text, but in the book itself there are also hints of James Baldwin's masterpiece The Fire Next Time. On the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin writes a moving letter to his...

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