PHOTOGRAPHY BY SASHA ARUTYUNOVA
Anna Deavere Smith may be Americau2019s greatest listener. Though sheu2019s best known for scene-stealing turns on Nurse Jackie and Black-ish, her true passion lies in creating documentary theater, which has earned her a MacArthur u201cgeniusu201d grant and Tony and Pulitzer nominations. Her process involves diving into hot-button issues by interviewing people and re-creating their responses verbatim, conjuring worlds with a switch in posture, a verbal tic, or a colloquialism. This approach has yielded kaleidoscopic one-woman shows on American health care and the LA riots, but her latest project is her most ambitious.
For Notes from the Fieldu2014which premiered on stage in 2015 and airs on HBO this monthu2014Smith spoke to more than 250 people about the school-to-prison pipeline. Her look at mass incarceration and education reform sees her playing characters such as Kevin Moore, the Baltimore man who filmed Freddie Grayu2019s arrest, and Bree Newsome, who climbed the South Carolina statehouse flagpole to remove the Confederate flag. Smith called Rhapsody from her home in LA to discuss her process and her capacity for unwavering hope.
What led you to explore this form of documentary theater?
There are certainly people who have worked in this form; the great Chicago journalist Studs Terkel comes to mind. They helped substantiate an idea that my grandfather gave me as a kid: u201cIf you say a word often enough, it becomes you.u201d What became critical to me was to be present for an interview and then, to use his phrase, I become them, with an overall idea of trying to absorb America word for word. It was my antidote to having grown up in a segregated environment. Iu2019ve spent my adult life chasing that which is not me as an artist.
Youu2019ve called the show part of a u201cnew civil rights movement.u201d
To quote Gloria Steinem, u201cIu2019m a hope-aholic.u201d Iu2019m hopeful that we are becoming more and more aware of inequalityu2014particularly in this political climate. We have what I call a u201cprotective amnesiau201d in America. We forget things, and then we have to have episodes like the killing of Michael Brown and the rash of videos we saw after that to remind us that we live in a gravely unequal society and that those who are poor, in all colors, are more susceptible to injustice and even brutality. Itu2019s why a movement like Black Lives Matter could start. But the ripple effect is that we start to look at not just the police but also the fact that our schools, which we have always looked to as the great equalizing force, are in big trouble.
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What inspired you to pursue the topic of schools?
I didnu2019t know anything about the school-to-prison pipeline. A philanthropist on this beat, Ann Beeson, invited me to her offices and had people from around the country telling me horror stories about 5-year-olds being handcuffed for having a tantrum. A kid from Baltimore, my hometown, had peed in a water cooler, and they were going to take him to jail. My mother was a teacheru2014to me, teachers save lives. The last thing anybody would do is send somebody to jail. A couple of days later, I was in hair and makeup at Nurse Jackie, next to the actress Eve Best, and I said, u201cI just canu2019t get this out of my mind.u201d And she said, u201cWhatever happened to mischief?u201d Thatu2019s the moment when I decided to do this project. Rich kids get u201cmischiefu201d; poor kids get pathologized and sent to jail for being kids. The country is so afraid of poor kids. I think itu2019s because weu2019re basically afraid that these u201cwildu201d individuals who are caught up in this epidemic could spread it to ourselves and our children and contaminate us all.
Do you feel like youu2019re giving these people voices?
What are you talking about?! Theyu2019re giving me a voice. Because of Niya Kenny [who filmed her classmate getting pulled out of a chair and arrested], I get to end the first act with, u201cMind your business? Seems like something you need to make your business.u201d Lights out, applause, applause, applause, hollers, and yells. Iu2019m an actor. Iu2019m just running my mouth.
Watching the show is a very emotional experience. How do you stay optimistic?
People say, u201cDonu2019t you get sad? Donu2019t you get down?u201d A rabbi, David Wolpe, once told me, u201cThe only whole heart is a broken one; itu2019s the kind of cracked that lets light in.u201d Every time I open my heart to someone who is in pain or struggling, I feel like the lightu2019s coming in, and Iu2019m becoming a stronger person. Iu2019m grateful that people feel Iu2019m worthy to carry their stories. Tennysonu2019s u201cIn Memoriamu201d has a great line: u201cI loved the weight I had to bear.u201d Thatu2019s how I feel about that which could otherwise be considered darkness. As an American, I love the weight I have to bear.