“It’s about a reality called the school-to-prison pipeline,” playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith says. “The Department of Justice has statistics showing that black, brown and Native American children who live in poverty are exponentially more likely to be suspended and expelled from school than their middle-class counterparts. And that this is related to the likelihood they will be put in the juvenile justice system and end up in circles of incarceration.”
Smith pauses. “That’s policy-speak. It’s really about the fact that kids who are poor and colored can’t make it. And that our public schools have fallen apart.”
She is discussing the subject of her new one-woman play, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA through September 17. The play has music composed and performed by bassist Marcus Shelby. It arrives in New York October 15 at Second Stage Theatre Off-Broadway.
Smith, 65, a MacArthur Fellow, is best known for her television performances on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie. She first achieved renown portraying 26 characters in her one- woman Off-Broadway show Fires in the Mirror, about the 1991 riots in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights. Then she earned two Tony nominations, again playing many roles, in Twilight: Los Angeles, about the 1992 Rodney King riots.
For Notes from the Field, she interviewed 235 people, in Northern California, Philadelphia, South Carolina, her native Baltimore and even Finland, “because I had been told Finland was the best educational system in the world.
“What I’ve learned is it’s almost unfair to call it a school-to-prison pipeline. It blames schools and teachers for something more ingrained in poverty and the fact we have such an incredible gap between rich and poor.” The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population and more than 20 percent of its prisoners. Smith says there are emotional reasons she was drawn to the subject. “I grew up in a segregated city—de facto segregation— Baltimore. My mother and all her friends and all my aunts were teachers, and they changed lives, including mine and my friends.” She too is a teacher, a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “There [is] something in my blood that has to do with education in the classroom as a transformational environment. To see emotionally that that is in jeopardy right now was a great pull.”
It’s about “how much I care about transformation, and how much I understand how vulnerable we all are, and if there isn’t somebody there to lend a helping hand, there but for the grace of God we go.”
She originally planned to perform in local communities to aid discussion. “I wasn’t thinking of going into full production.” But then Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO, followed by “a series of very disturbing videos we all saw of police officers doing things that seemed reprehensible, particularly to people of color.” So she “decided to go onstage in my old format.”
For her new play’s first act, Smith again takes on multiple roles, based on her interviews. But the second act differs. “We’ll divide the audience into small groups, and they will have facilitated conversations geared around a variety of questions, all pointed to, ‘Do you care about this?’ And if so, ‘What are you going to do? What small thing are you going to do? Are you going to walk somebody to school? Is it going to be how you vote? What can you do?’”