Award-winning playwright, actor and professor Anna Deavere Smith sees herself as a linking point between her subjects and the audiences for which she performs.

Ms. Deavere Smith's unique method of performance, one in which she takes interviews with Americans from all walks of life and performs them, embodying the speech patterns and mannerisms of each subject to convey their emotions and points of view, was on display on August 20 when Ms. Deavere Smith performed Race in America: Accepting Difference, Standing Shoulder to Shoulder at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs.

“I’m in between, I’m an in-limbo figure in bringing you the stories of the people that I talk to,” Ms. Deavere Smith said.

Hosted by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center and the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, Ms. Deavere Smith took the audience through a series of moments during America’s ongoing racial reckoning. Ms. Deavere Smith, who has been recognized as a MacArthur “Genius” fellow, said her goal is not to mimic her subjects. Rather, the point of inhabiting them is to recreate a range of emotions on questions of race and social justice as a way to bring people from different backgrounds to a point of common ground.

“For 42 years, I’ve been trying to become America, word for word,” Ms. Deavere Smith said. “Learning not just what people tell me when I interview them, but learning the music of their speech and learning every utterance that they make.”

The performance started off with a conversation between James Baldwin, the Black writer famous for his searing critiques of racism in America, and Margaret Mead, a white anthropologist whose scholarship influenced the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s. Drawn from a Rap on Race, a book published in 1970 co-authored by the two, the conversation touches on identity, power and privilege as well as race and gender.

“My country has rejected me. And the terms of their acceptance I will not accept…because it’s brought nothing but death and misery to me and mine,” Ms. Deavere Smith said as Mr. Baldwin.

Ms. Deavere Smith later shifted into Laura Smalley, a former slave interviewed in 1941 as part of a project sponsored by the U.S. government to document the experiences of people who lived in bondage. Ms. Smalley, who was six years old when slavery was abolished, became a point of interest for Ms. Deavere Smith as she researched Notes from the Field, a play about how Black kids get disproportionately entangled in the country’s criminal justice system.

The research for that show, which has since been adapted into a book and film, made Ms. Deavere Smith interested in how children experienced slavery, she said. Ms. Smalley recounts to the interviewer how she and the other enslaved children on her plantation ate from a trough like pigs and were left to fend for themselves without any skills after emancipation.

“[I was] born right there, stayed right there until I was 9 or 10 years old, didn’t know where to go,” Ms. Deavere Smith said as Ms. Smalley. “Turned us out just like we was cattle, didn’t know where to go, just stayed.”

The performance then moved to Deshaun, a Black boy who was incarcerated at a juvenile detention facility when Ms. Deavere Smith interviewed him. Deshaun reflects on his incarceration versus the life that awaits him on the outside.

As a ward of the state, Deshaun said he benefits from the job and education provided by the Department of Youth Services. But, like Ms. Smalley, Deshaun knows that being free also means being on his own. Deshaun worries about going back to the life that got him in trouble because he will not have a social safety net to support him when he gets home.

“To help me get through life, I need them services,” Ms. Deavere Smith said as Deshaun. “When you don’t have them services, now you’re back in the street, you’re trying to get money doing the same thing you was doing to get yourself in a place like this.”

Speaking as herself, Ms. Deavere Smith ended the performance by touching on the transformational power of empathy, which she said starts with listening.

“Can we talk to each other? That’s the beginning of the question,” Ms. Deavere Smith said.