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Barbara Block, Anna Deavere Smith win MacArthur grants

STANFORD -- Anna Deavere Smith, a performer and playwright who has created a new form of theater, and Barbara A. Block, a marine biologist who studies tuna in the lab and in the wild, have been named two of this year's 21 recipients of grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Smith, 45, the Ann O'Day Maples Professor in the Arts, will receive $280,000 over five years. Block, 38, assistant professor of biological sciences, will receive $245,000 over the same period. (The amount of each award is based upon the recipient's age.) Recipients may use funds provided by the so-called "genius grants" for any purpose they choose.

Anna Deavere Smith

960617b2.GIF Smith has blended theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reflections to create a new form of theater. Her series of one-woman shows, "On the Road: A Search for American Character," explores the conflicts and searing questions that are transforming American identity ­ and American theater.

"Her work has advanced performance theory and introduced a new way for the theater to reflect, and reflect upon, society," the directors of the MacArthur Foundation said in awarding her grant. "One of Smith's skills lies in creating works that help those whose viewpoints are diametrically opposed to see the viewpoints of the other side."

A self-described "experimentalist," Smith has received two Obies (off-Broadway awards), two Tony Award nominations and two Drama Critics Circle awards for her writing and performance in theater, film and television. She played Tom Hanks' loyal paralegal in the movie Philadelphia, and most recently portrayed a White House press secretary in American President.

In 1983 Smith launched her "On the Road: A Search for American Character" series in an effort to document the changes in racial identity, sexual politics and multiculturalism that are reshaping the nation.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities emerged from more than 100 interviews Smith conducted with people affected by the Crown Heights riots of 1991, when a 7-year-old black child was struck and killed by a car that was part of a motorcade of Hassidic Jews. Black youths responded by beating to death a 19-year-old Hassidic student.

The show, which premiered at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1992 and moved to the Joseph Papp Theater in New York City, echoed the voices of rappers and rabbis, Orthodox teachers and Brooklyn housewives, Angela Davis and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

For Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith spent nine months learning Spanish and Korean and interviewing 175 people in that city after rioting erupted when police officers charged with beating motorist Rodney King were acquitted in their first trial.

In the resulting play, Smith performed 23 real-life individuals ­ male and female, famous and infamous, black, white, Asian and Latino. She portrayed former police chief Daryl Gates and truck driver Reginald Denny. She also took on the persona of a pregnant Panamanian woman who had been shot in the stomach, and that of Elaine Brown, the former Black Panther leader.

Smith was hailed as "the most exciting individual in American theater" by Newsweek theater critic Jack Kroll after Twilight opened on Broadway in 1994.

"What she has accomplished is an American masterpiece," Kroll wrote. "You get the feeling that Smith's very fingerprints change as she switches characters."

Smith has been profiled in People magazine and The New Yorker. In 1995 she was included among the Utne Reader's list of "100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life."

That same year Smith received a $100,000 commission from Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., to complete the next installment of her "On the Road" series. The new ensemble piece she currently is researching, scheduled to open in the fall of 1997, will draw on interviews with reporters, presidential advisers, campaign workers and historians to portray the relationship between the president and the press.

Before coming to Stanford in 1990, Smith taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Yale University and New York University. She received her B.A. in 1971 from Beaver College, near Philadelphia, and earned her M.F.A. in 1977 from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Barbara Block

Block heard about her award in a phone call to the tiny island of San Miguel, in the Azores, where she was attending a tuna conservation conference. "I was totally astonished," she said.

Block said she considers her award to be recognition of a multidisciplinary approach to biology shared with her colleagues at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif. ­ she uses every scientific tool available to study every aspect of marine animals, from their genes and molecules to the behavior of the animals in the wild.

She has used this approach, studying tuna and related open ocean fish, to examine, among other questions, how and why the animals generate heat in their muscles, and how far they travel as wide-ranging ocean nomads. A major aim of her research is to learn enough about how the populations of these valuable fish are structured to prevent them from being destroyed by competing international fisheries.

Block said most of her award will be used to support projects at the Tuna Research and Conservation Center at Hopkins Marine Station. She is co-director of this joint venture between Hopkins and the Monterey Bay Aquarium next door. It is the only research center in the world where large nomadic ocean fish can be studied in captivity.

Block and her colleagues have been working in the tuna center and in the wild to develop new monitoring devices ­ on-board computer tags that record a tuna's physiology, behavior and location as the fish roams across the oceans of the globe. In one project, the scientists will attach these tags to giant bluefin tuna weighing as much as 500 pounds, to find out where they go and where they spawn after leaving their gathering area off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The researchers will gather DNA from the tagged fish to see if fish with similar genetic backgrounds follow the same routes.

The research will provide answers on how groups of tuna disperse and mix that should establish whether international fishing treaties need to be revised to save giant bluefin tuna (which can sell for $70,000 per fish) from extinction.

Another element of the laboratory work at the tuna center is a continuation of Block's research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, about how muscle makes heat at the molecular level, and why animals warm their muscles. In recent experiments, she and colleagues have shown that warm muscle cells generate more power and allow the fish to swim faster ­ and thus to catch prey and escape predators.

Block was born on April 25, 1958, in Springfield, Mass. She received her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Vermont and her doctorate in zoology from Duke University. During her undergraduate and graduate years she began studying the biology of tunas, working under the tutelage of researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the faculty at the University of Chicago before coming to Stanford in 1994.

Among Block's awards and honors are a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award, the President's Medal of the Society for Experimental Biology in London, the George Bartholowmew Award of the American Society of Zoologists and one of the first of Stanford's prestigious Terman Fellowships. Among the other supporters of her research are the National Institutes of Health, the National Geographic Society and the Packard Foundation.


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