Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith Credit: Mary Ellen Mark

Anna Deavere Smith may be most famous for her recurring role as Gloria Akalitus, the prickly hospital administrator on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie. But she’s most treasured for the theater pieces she’s written and performed over the last couple decades. Covering subjects like the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (Fires in the Mirror, 1992), and South Central LA (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1994), Smith’s one-woman, multicharacter shows are built around people she’s interviewed, using the words they spoke.

Now, thanks to a University of Chicago fellowship, she’s in town workshopping something new in collaboration with cellist Joshua Roman and director Leonard Foglia. It’s called On Grace, and you can get a look at how it’s shaping up when Smith and company present it as part of an evening event—Conversation on Grace—on January 21 at the Harris Theater.

Actually, On Grace isn’t entirely new. Smith sees it as “leftover business” from Let Me Down Easy, a 2009 documentary piece that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described as an exploration of “life, death and the care of the ailing body.” The director Mike Nichols saw an in-progress version and told Smith, “This play is about kindness.” “And I forgot that and translated it into ‘grace’ somehow,” Smith says. “And I just started asking people to talk to me [about grace].”

Let Me Down Easy got Smith thinking about the “unbidden in life: what comes to us in our life that we did not ask for or plan for.” That in turn led her to consider the religious concept of grace. (“This will sound like a joke, but I took the idea to a rabbi, a Buddhist monk, and an imam and realized that that particular idea is uniquely Christian.”) From there she went on to contemplate the kind that resides in people and certain acts.

“So what I’d like the audience to do is think about where it is in their life—or not,” Smith says. “And more importantly, can they contribute it to a given situation?

“I’ll give you one example. I was in a workplace where there was some discord going on. It wasn’t about me, but I observed it. I felt so bad about it, that these two people weren’t getting along, [yet] I thought, ‘There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s not my business at all.’ Then I woke up one morning and thought, ‘I’m gonna take my dog to work.’ I have a dog that’s a herder and she cannot have people not together. They have to be together. . . . She has that in her DNA. It was amazing what the presence of my dog did. It changed everything.

“Usually I’m attracted to issues where people are taking sides. [On Grace] is a little different, because it’s not about a particular issue or policy. It’s about how we live more broadly, how we live with each other.”