Actress Anna Deveare Smith Gives a Crash Course in the School-to-Prison Pipeline
In her latest solo show, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Aug. 2, Anna Deavere Smith looks at the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The term refers to how kids—mostly poor and nonwhite—are being pushed out of school into the criminal justice system through such means as expulsions or suspensions for minor infractions, more police presence in schools, and school-based arrests.
Smith starred as a hospital administrator in television’s “Nurse Jackie” and appeared on “The West Wing” as a security adviser. She’s also been in more than a dozen movies, including “Philadelphia” and “Rachel Getting Married,” but what she’s best known for is creating the sort of documentary theater on display in “Notes From the Field”—in which she interviews subjects associated with some issue or event, videotapes them, and then transforms herself onstage, re-creating their speech patterns and expressions.
Smith conducted her interviews for her new show in the San Francisco Bay Area (where she got her MFA from American Conservatory Theater), Philadelphia and Baltimore, her hometown. She was in Baltimore soon after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by white police Officer Darren Wilson. She includes a Baltimore protester in her show, as well as the videographer who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray, who died in custody in Baltimore. Six Baltimore police were charged in connection with Gray’s death.
Smith, a professor at New York University, wanted to do a piece on education and thought that looking at the prioritization of incarceration over education would be a way into that topic. She talked with judges, teachers, students, principals and people who have been locked up to find out all she could about why marginalized minors are ending up in jail. For the second act, the audience splits into smaller groups and facilitators from Youth Speaks, an arts organization, lead a discussion. Jazz composer Marcus Shelby joins her onstage, playing bass.
Smith sat down with Truthdig before her show opened to talk about people being more comfortable with science than sociology, how expression is vital to transformation, and what it takes to create a movement.
What did people say in the interviews you hadn’t thought of before? What was particularly interesting to you?
People I talked to over time—and I think I’ve done about 170 interviews now—if you think of a piece of music like a fugue or a jazz piece and everybody is adding something. Or it’s almost like I put a big piece of paper up, and everyone is adding a different color. Everyone that I talked to increased my understanding of what this [is about]. The chief justice of California, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, I just loved the way she talked about it very simply—if you’re not in school, you’re in trouble.
What did people say about what could or should be done?
There are a lot of people doing things. I would say one very efficient way to think about it is what we’ve done as a country is put a lot of resources on the back end, right? So what happens to people in prison? There’s a lot of therapy. Now colleges are going to prison [to offer courses]. The question is what if we just shifted the whole economics of this and put resources on the front end? The question is what do people need to get through?
The irony is it’s not just about poor kids. I teach kids with a lot of advantages. My friends have kids in really fine schools. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t feel they have to do a lot of buffering and a lot of work to make sure their kids get through, whatever that “through” means. If you’re raising a black boy in any social class, you’re probably concerned about what happens to him. If you have a kid in private schools, you’re concerned about getting placed in college and which college. We’re in an extremely competitive environment where I don’t think anyone takes his or her success for granted anymore.
Was anyone doing something to try and have more resources for kids in schools?
That’s policy, right? That’s what the play is trying to push towards … an awareness that these are policy changes that have to happen that have to do with where the money is getting spent. But people are doing things to demonstrate to us how money and time and research could [be] well spent. Nadine Burke Harris, who’s right here in San Francisco, she writes about toxic stress and differentiates between that and ADHD. She’s looking very carefully at the lives of kids in this poor community. And guess who she’s collaborating with? Of all people, the chief of police in [the] city of San Francisco! So there you see a collaboration, which recognizes things around kids’ lives which present obstacles.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University—which I think has more Nobel prizes than any other place per capita—about the brain. There are people in the science of this now, which I would say is really great because we trust scientists—we’re not so sure about sociologists. I would say science is there. And then you have people like a very promising councilman in Stockton, [Calif.], Michael Tubbs, who’s a great, charismatic spokesman on behalf of kids of color. I think there are lots of people doing good stuff, lots of people. And I think that’s what makes it exciting if you look at it as a problem to solve. How do you get penicillin or a lot of other things?
What do you think theater achieves?
I try to be modest and humble about what theater can achieve or any of the arts can achieve. For me what the theater does, there’s many great works of art we would assign to social change and the era I came up in, the ’60s and ’70s, what would that movement, the civil rights movement and anti-war movement be without popular culture? Aretha Franklin singing a song like “Think”: “Think about what you’re trying to do to me.” It’s not just about a love affair. Or Bonnie Raitt, one time when I was interviewing her, put it best: The blues and a lot of this music is basically saying, “Don’t treat me this way. Don’t do me like this.” Again, it’s not just about a lover. It’s speaking to the social problems of the time. It’s speaking to the need for justice. I think that expression is always a part of human transformation.
So the theater brings two things: one, it’s a live convening place, and two, it’s in language. In some ways, I feel that cripples me in the theater. My friends who are musicians and visual artists can travel all over the world with their work, and I can only do my work in English. But on the other hand, because it is in language, it’s less abstract. So we can exchange ideas, and the theater is all about dialogue, so it suggests we could be in dialogue. It invites different points of view. It’s a kind of forum. With the Greeks it was. It’s at the center of democracy. It gives us the opportunity to think and feel, and it gives us the opportunity to share ideas, which is difficult to do. We don’t have that many convening places where we’re together with strangers.
The audience is breaking into discussion groups moderated by Youth Speaks. What made you want to do that?
I experimented with this stuff in the ’90s. I had an institute at Harvard called the Institute on Arts and Civic Dialogues. I produced work by people on social change. The idea … was put out to provoke conversation on social issues. I’m picking up where I left off with that. I think it’s very hard to have a conversation with an audience of 500 people. I’m sure you’ve been in those audiences where someone gets up and they grab the mic, and it’s like, “Is there a question?” [Laughs.] So I thought if we divide this audience up into small groups, randomly put together, we have this wonderful opportunity to create small pockets of conversation. I knew Youth Speaks had a method [for] creating conversation. Hopefully, it will accrue over performances.
You’ve said you think education is a forum for civil rights.
Some people think education will be the next civil rights movement. But more people were talking like that before Ferguson. I think with Ferguson and technology and the number of short, sad films we have about police officers and communities and the things they do to citizens, I would say right now people are thinking about that more. That’s what makes people march in the streets. I don’t know how you get people marching in the streets about education. It’s sort of hard. But it’s not impossible. One of my colleagues I talked to at NYU, professor Pedro Noguera, he talks about how to have a movement, you’ve got to have a large umbrella. So he thinks to have a movement it’s got to be beyond race and more broadly about social and economic inequality. Certainly we saw that with Ferguson and videos.