“The Ghost of Slavery: Anna Deavere Smith’s Powerful Exploration of Historical Trauma”

Unveiling the Connections Between Past and Present in “The Ghost of Slavery

In a groundbreaking move, The Atlantic magazine has published its first play in almost a century. Titled “The Ghost of Slavery,” the play, written by acclaimed actor, playwright, and APP Professor Anna Deavere Smith, serves as the centerpiece of a Reconstruction-themed issue. Set in both the 1860s and the present day, the play delves into the persistent trauma of slavery and its impact on subsequent generations. Through a combination of contemporary interviews, historical research, and powerful storytelling, Smith’s work sheds light on the interconnectedness of past and present.

Unearthing the Historical Persistence of Trauma

“The Ghost of Slavery” is a profound exploration of the enduring effects of slavery on American society. Drawing from her own interviews with activists, social justice workers, and young people impacted by the prison industrial complex, Smith weaves together personal narratives that highlight the ongoing struggles faced by marginalized communities. By supplementing these interviews with primary-source historical materials, including 19th-century archives and diaries, Smith uncovers the roots of the problem in the aftermath of emancipation. Her meticulous research and empathetic storytelling bring to light the cyclical nature of trauma and its far-reaching consequences.

The Contemporary Failures of the Juvenile Justice System

One of the key themes in “The Ghost of Slavery” is the exploration of the contemporary failures of the juvenile justice system. Smith’s interviews with individuals affected by the carceral system provide a stark portrayal of the challenges faced by young people today. By juxtaposing these personal accounts with historical context, Smith exposes the systemic issues that have perpetuated the cycle of oppression and inequality. Through her play, she calls for a critical examination of the present-day justice system and prompts audiences to consider the urgent need for reform.

A Multidimensional Approach to Storytelling

Anna Deavere Smith’s unique approach to storytelling sets “The Ghost of Slavery” apart. Combining her talent as an actor and playwright, Smith brings the characters she interviews to life on stage, embodying their voices, gestures, and emotions. This technique, known as “verbatim theater,” allows the audience to engage with the stories on a deeply personal level, forging a connection between the past and the present. By blending contemporary interviews with historical research, Smith creates a narrative that is both informative and emotionally resonant, inviting audiences to confront uncomfortable truths and challenge their own perspectives.

The Power of Performance and Future Staging

While “The Ghost of Slavery” has made its debut in The Atlantic magazine, Smith intends to bring the play to the stage in the future. The power of performance lies in its ability to evoke empathy, provoke dialogue, and inspire change. By adapting her play for live theater, Smith aims to reach a broader audience and amplify the impact of her storytelling. Through the medium of theater, she hopes to foster a deeper understanding of the historical legacy of slavery and its repercussions in contemporary society.


“The Ghost of Slavery” by Anna Deavere Smith is a groundbreaking work that delves into the historical persistence of trauma and its impact on present-day America. Through a combination of contemporary interviews, historical research, and powerful storytelling, Smith uncovers the connections between past and present, shedding light on the cyclical nature of oppression and inequality. By bringing the play to the stage in the future, Smith aims to continue the important dialogue sparked by her work, encouraging audiences to confront uncomfortable truths and work towards a more just and equitable society.