Get ready for some superlative praise: When it comes to a mastery of accents, dialects, and the ability to embody another person's idiosyncratic language, Anna Deveare Smith rivals Meryl Streep. Both actresses are physical chameleons, too, with faces that are somehow blank slates that can transform easily into other people even crossing genders as Smith has frequently been known to do in her stage work, and as Streep did most recently in the HBO version of Angels in America, playing an elderly rabbi. Smith is best known as playing National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on The West Wing, and more recently playing hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus on Nurse Jackie. But her truly astonishing work has been for the theater, giving voice to Jewish and African American residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn in her Pulitzer Prize-nominated play Fires in the Mirror performed for sold-out audiences at Berkeley Rep in 1994 and her follow-up piece two years later about the Rodney King riots, Twilight: Los Angeles.
She's a writer and linguistic master as much as she is a performer, and for those pieces, as well as her latest at Berkeley Rep, Let Me Down Easy, Smith spends years conducting recording interviews with people and then listening to those recordings hundreds of times in order to imitate, and perform other peoples' personal testimonies with every slightest verbal tic and intonation intact.