For over 25 years, Anna Deavere Smith has been observing us.
Since the early ’90s, the Shakespearean-trained actress and playwright, best known for roles in The West Wing, Nurse Jackie and, most recently, Black-ish, has borne witness to some of the most painful moments in contemporary America’s racialized history. In the process, she has interviewed witnesses, pundits and firsthand participants, acting as both cultural anthropologist and, later, griot in retelling the tales.
Deavere Smith’s first foray into “documentary theater” was 1992’s Fires in the Mirror, a critically acclaimed one-woman show of 29 monologues, gleaned from interviews of activists, participants and spectators of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, N.Y. The riots were sparked by the accidental vehicular homicide of a young black child by an Orthodox Jewish man. During the riots, a visiting Australian Orthodox man was stabbed and killed in retaliation.
That groundbreaking piece of work—in which Deavere Smith performed each of the 29 people she’d interviewed—was followed by 1994’s Tony-nominated Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, in which Deavere Smith re-enacted interviews she’d recorded of people in relation to the Los Angeles riots, including Rep. Maxine Waters, opera singer Jessye Norman and riot victim Reginald Denny.
Now the groundbreaking playwright and actress has turned her gaze to the school-to-prison pipeline with Notes From the Field, a study of the epidemic of mass incarceration and villainization of black children in America. As Deavere Smith told The Glow Up, it’s an issue that was initially brought to her attention by Ann Beeson, then head of George Soros’ Open Society:
She said come over, and I want you to learn about it. So I went over to the foundation, where about 15 people from around the country together were doing work on the school-to-prison pipeline, and I heard story after story.
And the story that changed my life for the next six years was a story about a kid in Baltimore who had peed in a watercooler, and they were going to take him to jail. Well, now, if somebody told me that now, I would go, “Yeah, that’s what would happen.” But at the time, I was flabbergasted. And it was like, “Man, this has to be my coming-home project because I grew up Baltimore;” my mother was a teacher, and her sisters were teachers, all my father’s sisters were teachers. I grew up around teachers, and they change lives.
At the time, Deavere Smith was appearing on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and recalled recounting the watercooler incident in a casual conversation with British co-star Emily Best:
And I said [to Best], “You know, I can’t believe what I just heard. I heard about this kid who peed in a watercooler, and they were going to take him to jail.” And [Best] said in that fantastic, Oxford-trained, British accent, she said, “Oh well, whatever happened to mischief?” And it was just, “Man ... rich kids get mischief; poor kids go to jail and get pathologized.” And I was in it from that minute on.
Deavere Smith hails from a family of female educators—including her own mother, an elementary school principal who expected her award-winning eldest daughter to follow in her academic footsteps. Instead, Deavere Smith became both an actress and cultural anthropologist of sorts, interviewing people at the intersection of pivotal moments in contemporary American history. In the process, she became an educator after all, teaching at both New York University and Stanford.
But current events still serve as her inspiration, drawing her back to the stage at another pivotal moment in American race relations. It was while staying on Native American reservations, studying the abject poverty of our indigenous people, that Deavere Smith said she got the inspiration for Notes From the Field:
You know, I was just going to do sort of town halls in the areas where I did interviews, and I just would do staged readings. And then Michael Brown was shot in 2014, and I thought, “Well, here’s one of those rare moments that America is paying attention to race, and I need to fix it into a real play and get myself on stage and get out there.” So, that’s what I ended up doing. ...
And as an African American, I’m coming from a history of struggle. And so, the only thing I can possibly do about that—and I don’t know the hymn—is to carry “the bloodstained banner” of struggle. And so, I think that is a very exciting thing to do. And that’s what I’ve been doing with my adult life.
And what is it like to bear witness to some of the most painful moments in people’s lives—moments that are potentially pivotal in how we discuss race in America? Those tensions and traumas are exactly the moments Deavere Smith is most interested in:
Well , number one, you know, I like catastrophe because I’m a dramatist. And most plays—serious plays—are tackling some kind of problem ... and the writer, through the characters, is trying to make it right. And while they’re trying to make it right, they go through a kind of a storm, and I’m very interested in that storm ...
So I’m interested in what it takes to go through the storm, and if I can suggest anything at the end of that storm by putting myself through the pseudo storm, that is by embodying the people who tell me the story—and particularly the people who are most caught up in it. And you know, my whole experiment on the research of American character is about the power of language. And so, when I sit with someone, I’m waiting for them to tell me of the catastrophe from their point of view, and while I’m with them, I watch them make sense of it. And that’s a very gratifying experience.
Deavere Smith’s process is one of observation and recording, followed by extensive hours of study on rarely more than five minutes of monologue from the person she’s studying. She then rehearses with a dialect coach and a former Alvin Ailey dancer to re-enact the cadence and movement as accurately as possible. As she told The Glow Up, she considers the process a loving one:
I think that the kind of attention we pay to the people that are going to become what I call “portraits” in my work is a form of love. And I don’t know if the people trust me. I think if I’ve done well, if I’ve succeeded at paying as much attention as I ought to, then what the audience is really observing is me loving those people.
But even as Deavere Smith’s lens is currently focused on the school-to-prison pipeline, she is quick to point out that even those conversations are limited in their scope. She notes that even while identifying the inequities that create the crisis, one crucial aspect tends to be ignored:
In the school-to-prison pipeline, most of what you are going to [find]—if you research it—is about boys. ... I didn’t have to look very far to watch and see the ways in which girls and women are intersected by this system in different ways than boys.
What was interesting to me ... there’s a girl in Texas [Dajerria Becton] who [was] thrown around in her bathing suit by a cop. It’s, like, unbelievable ... we watched that over and over again. Before that cop throws her on the ground, she’s with her friends, who are indignant about the cop’s behavior—very strong, you know, sassy 14-year-olds, confident, standing there in their bathing suits. And he walks over to them and he says, “Y’all better stop running your mouths.”
Cut to when “Shakara” gets thrown across the room in South Carolina, young Niya Kenny gets taken to jail for getting up and saying, “Ain’t anybody to do anything about this?” while her classmates are still looking in their computers. And she says, “What the fuck? What the fuck?” And she’s taken off to jail.
And so, I think, there is this way—and you know, Angela Davis, every photograph of her, her mouth is open. There is this way that we as black women aren’t supposed to run our mouths.
In Notes From the Field, the last person portrayed is activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome, whom Deavere Smith interviewed after Newsome climbed a flagpole in 2015, risking her life to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds. For Deavere Smith, Newsome is an example of the way that hope can consistently inspire heroism:
You know, personally, it is an amazing experience to be able to go through these catastrophes. And they are not depressing, and it is not hopeless. It is hopeful.
I know I can quote Cornel West for you, and you will understand that when he differentiated between hope and optimism, he says, you know optimism looks at the evidence and says, “Oh, things are gonna be better.” But hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look good at all.” But I’m going to make a leap of faith, go beyond the evidence to try to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious and allow people to engage in heroic actions, always against the odds.
The Glow Up tip: Notes From the Field premieres on HBO Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 p.m. EST.