Anna Deavere Smith Is All Ears
The MacArthur “genius” playwright retells America’s tales
Anna Deavere Smith may be America’s greatest listener. Though she’s 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 “genius” 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 Field—which premiered on stage in 2015 and airs on HBO this month—Smith 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 Gray’s 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: “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” 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. I’ve spent my adult life chasing that which is not me as an artist.
You’ve called the show part of a “new civil rights movement.”
To quote Gloria Steinem, “I’m a hope-aholic.” I’m hopeful that we are becoming more and more aware of inequality—particularly in this political climate. We have what I call a “protective amnesia” 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. It’s 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.
What inspired you to pursue the topic of schools?
I didn’t 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 teacher—to 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, “I just can’t get this out of my mind.” And she said, “Whatever happened to mischief?” That’s the moment when I decided to do this project. Rich kids get “mischief”; poor kids get pathologized and sent to jail for being kids. The country is so afraid of poor kids. I think it’s because we’re basically afraid that these “wild” individuals who are caught up in this epidemic could spread it to ourselves and our children and contaminate us all.
Do you feel like you’re giving these people voices?
What are you talking about?! They’re 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, “Mind your business? Seems like something you need to make your business.” Lights out, applause, applause, applause, hollers, and yells. I’m an actor. I’m just running my mouth.
Watching the show is a very emotional experience. How do you stay optimistic?
People say, “Don’t you get sad? Don’t you get down?” A rabbi, David Wolpe, once told me, “The only whole heart is a broken one; it’s the kind of cracked that lets light in.” Every time I open my heart to someone who is in pain or struggling, I feel like the light’s coming in, and I’m becoming a stronger person. I’m grateful that people feel I’m worthy to carry their stories. Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” has a great line: “I loved the weight I had to bear.” That’s how I feel about that which could otherwise be considered darkness. As an American, I love the weight I have to bear.