HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

Daily Dose: 12/4/17 Lakers institute LaVar Ball rule

What up, gang? Hope your weekend went well. I’m talking to a group of schoolchildren about journalism Monday afternoon, which always makes me happy. It’s fun to give back.

It’s clear that President Donald Trump and his people don’t think the rules apply to him. Literally. After Trump tweeted about Michael Flynn, who admitted that he lied to the FBI, many felt he was unintentionally admitting that he obstructed justice. Basically, he said he fired Flynn because he lied, which is not really how that’s supposed to work. Then, Trump’s lawyer told the media that it’s not possible for the president to obstruct justice, which is absolutely not how any of this works, at all.

For many school districts across America, parents make tough choices. There are private schools, which are costly and come with their own set of issues that provide families with difficult decisions but typically a higher level of education. Then there are public schools, which in quite a few cases are simply the default — and not always the best environment for learning. There are also charter schools, which provide somewhat of an in-between, but some come with a huge downfall: They are often operated in a fundamentally racist manner.

The fallout from Matt Lauer’s firing at NBC continues. Because he was such a big personality at the Today show, the story basically can’t go away. He also was a major part of their Christmas tree lighting ceremony in New York, which is always one of the biggest productions of the year for the network. They tried to re-edit that show as to not include him in the final on-air product, which is not easy. Now, they’re also basically deleting his entire existence from the history of the building, which is drastic but necessary.

LaVar Ball continues to rack up haters. His behavior in the media and at the Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers play, has motivated the team to act. After he basically ripped the entire organization for how they coach the team, they’ve decided to institute a rule that says media members can’t talk to friends and family of players after games. Why they think this somehow is going to silence one of the loudest mouths in America, I don’t know.

Free Food

Coffee Break: Whatever happens to Rob Gronkowski probably won’t be enough. His hit Sunday in Buffalo, New York, on a Bills player after the whistle was one of the dirtiest things I’ve ever seen. He should be suspended for the rest of the regular season and the playoffs. He’ll probably get one game.

Snack Time: The Army-Navy game is coming up Saturday, and both teams will have extremely fire unis on. Check out Army. And here’s Navy.

Dessert: If you’re not worried about net neutrality, you should be.

David Robinson’s advice on effective social change: ‘Slow down’ ‘The Admiral’ says it took years to get his school and investment fund up and running

SAN ANTONIO — The students making their way through a first-floor corridor at Carver Academy and College Prep grew wide-eyed when they bumped into the school’s founder. A few gasped when the still-trim, 7-foot-1 Spurs legend David Robinson stopped to wave, and they beamed when he posed for a few selfies.

Most of these young people were not yet born when Robinson’s Hall of Fame NBA career ended in 2003. But, to them, the man nicknamed “the Admiral” is as much a star for what he has done off the court as for what he did on it.

Robinson launched what was then called Carver Academy 16 years ago with $10 million of his own money. It began as a small parochial school serving elementary students, but it is now a publicly funded charter school that enrolls more than 1,100 pupils. Most of the students are Hispanic or black, and most of them are from low-income families. Nearly all of them are on track for college, school officials say.

We’re in an age when athletes are embracing social activism in a way that rivals anything in the past. Following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, scores of NFL players have stirred a national debate by taking a knee or sitting during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice. Others have worn T-shirts or hoodies to protest the deaths of Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin. Many athletes have started foundations or otherwise tried to leverage their wealth and fame to spur social change.

It is a level of consciousness that heartens the 52-year-old Robinson. And while Robinson is careful not to criticize any protesting players, he says it remains to be seen whether their strong words will be matched by meaningful deeds — or make the kind of difference that is happening at Carver.

“There is certainly more awareness now. Guys understand their influence and opportunity,” Robinson said. “I’ve talked to a lot of young athletes. They care. They want to do something significant. The question is, how? How do they do it?”

It is something Robinson knows firsthand. It took him years to turn his dream of a school into reality. He says the athletes eager to make change should be prepared for a similar struggle.

A line of students eagerly greet David Robinson as they walk to their next classroom at the IDEA Carver College Prep campus. “I’m a teacher at heart,” said Robinson. “I’m a lifelong student.”

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“Guys in the NBA visit Carver all the time. Some of them say, ‘This is great. I want to start a school too,’ ” Robinson said. “My reaction is usually, ‘Wait. Slow down.’ You’ve got to be sure this is what you want to do. There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

Robinson’s patient brand of activism led him to not only open a school but to also co-found Admiral Capital Group, a private equity firm that helps pay for his good deeds. Admiral controls more than $1 billion in office space, hotels and apartment developments. The company also has invested alongside several NBA and NFL team owners in an online platform that helps coaches at all levels break down game film as well as a separate online platform that automates management of youth athletic leagues. The firm sets aside 10 percent of its profits for donations aimed at making social change.

“The business is a sustainable way of making a long-term impact,” said Daniel Bassichis, a former Goldman Sachs banker and the firm’s co-founder, who once served on Carver’s board. “It has a constant income, which is key. Most [athletes’] foundations do not have this kind of income.”

Admiral has also helped guide investments by other professional athletes, including Spurs guard Tony Parker, former NFL defensive lineman Justin Tuck (who served an internship with the firm as an MBA student) and retired major league outfielder Torii Hunter. Not only are the investors immersed in the details of their investments, but they also receive advice on how to make lasting social change.

“There is so much to learn. It is daunting. When a lot of guys come into the league, they are not prepared to write a check, much less run a school or build something.”

For instance, each year the firm hires 25 Houston-area high school students to work in a Hilton Garden Inn hotel it owns there. The idea is to expose young people to careers in the hospitality industry. If students take to the work, they are given scholarships to the University of Houston, which they attend as Admiral scholars.

Robinson’s vision for social activism came into focus three decades ago during a two-year military commitment after his graduation from the Naval Academy. During that time, Robinson visited a couple of dozen Washington, D.C.-area high schools to deliver a simple message: Just say no to drugs.

Most students seemed thrilled to have the basketball star in their midst. Still, Robinson’s words frequently fell flat, particularly with the students who most needed to hear them. He realized he had to do more than say something. He had to do something.

“I realized it was like trying to put a Band-Aid on a big wound,” Robinson recalled. “Some of the kids would say, ‘This ain’t reality to us.’ From what they knew, drug dealers were making money. Or education wouldn’t change their lives. I found myself wondering, what can I do to help these kids? How do I make change?”

Robinson, a devout Christian, prayed on it. The answer he got convinced him that he should one day open a school to help guide young people to make better choices, regardless of the difficult circumstances they may confront.

“You can talk until you are blue in the face, but you can’t change people,” he said. “But you can plant seeds, and education is a natural way to plant seeds.”

Robinson nurtured his dream for most of his NBA career, making donations and connections and learning what he could about educational policy. Finally, he made his move, opening Carver Academy in 2001, two years before he retired from basketball. As a parochial school, it had just 120 students. To expand its reach and relieve the constant fundraising pressure, Robinson agreed in 2012 to convert Carver into a publicly funded charter school by joining forces with IDEA, a nonprofit that operates 61 schools serving 36,000 students across Texas. Robinson is now a member of IDEA’s San Antonio regional board.

The school, renamed Carver Academy and College Prep, now has more than 1,100 students in kindergarten through 11th grade. (It will add 12th-grade classes next year.)

David Robinson originally founded George W. Carver Academy in 2001. Eleven years later, he partnered with IDEA Public Schools to expand his goal of accessible quality education for all children.

Julysa Sosa for The Undefeated

“When I started Carver, I did not know what I was doing,” Robinson said. “It is a huge undertaking: fundraising, curriculum, finding partners. It is a commitment, and it takes a long time to learn.”

Carver is located not far from the Spurs’ home arena. “We have students in homeless shelters, or who have lived in cars for periods of time. There are all kinds of life issues,” said Guadalupe Diaz, principal of Carver’s elementary program. “But there is an abiding belief that they can overcome. They can do it.”

One of Robinson’s core beliefs is that tough circumstances should not be seen as insurmountable obstacles to achievement. He named the school after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery but nonetheless went on to become a widely respected botanist, inventor and teacher. He thought Carver’s life story contained a lesson for young people today.

“If you think you have a bad situation, that man grew up in a worse situation,” Robinson explained. “But Carver knew there was a reason he was here. That led him to do amazing things. We have to start where we are, use what we have and make something of it. And never be satisfied.”

Robinson says another one of his core strategies is to inspire young people to tap into their own gifts and leverage whatever opportunities they have.

“Every time you turn on the television, people see rap stars, athletes and actors. You don’t see the everyday people who are doing well. The culture points us to these unattainable roles. How many of us are going to be athletes? Practically nobody. Success is not being Jay-Z. There is only one Jay-Z. Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important? The idea is to get them excited for the life before them.”

Too often, Robinson said, schools that serve low-income students succumb to the instability and low expectations that often accompany poverty. It is a problem identified by many educators but one Carver has apparently found a way to conquer. Its elementary school students consistently score near the 70th percentile on standardized math and reading tests, an achievement that officials attribute to their individualized focus on the students. Parents have responded: This year the school could enroll just 120 new students out of 300 who applied through a lottery.

“Who is telling kids that this long journey of being a father is crazy important?”

“What I think Carver has figured out is how to help students grapple with community issues that might come up and not hold them against the kids,” said Brittany Hibbert, an assistant principal at Carver’s upper school. She said students and administrators do home visits, staff Saturday school and take calls from students at night. “We literally do whatever it takes.”

High expectations and individually tailored instruction help. But it is also helpful that one of San Antonio’s best-known celebrities is a regular presence at Carver. The first floor of the upper school has a small museum dedicated to Robinson, a two-time NBA champion, 10-time All Star and former league MVP. There are jerseys from the Naval Academy, the Spurs and the two U.S. Olympic teams he played for. There are also medals and trophies, and even a small section of basketball floor marked with the footprints of Robinson and some of his former teammates and coaches.

“His presence is significant,” said Chang Yu, principal of Carver’s upper school. “His name appeals, and it resonates quality, sportsmanship, education — all good things that people gravitate toward. He definitely is a factor in our success.”

Robinson says that is where many people who command the spotlight can be helpful. Robinson applauded stars such as LeBron James, Chris Paul and others who have backed up their calls for social justice by donating millions of dollars for things such as after-school programs and college scholarships. As he watches more athletes find their voice embracing the new civil rights movement, he said he will be dividing them into two categories: those who just say things, and those who back their words with action.

“I can say anything I want to say, but you can also go back and track what I’ve done over the last 20 years to see if what I’m saying matches up,” Robinson said. “Where is your money going? What have you given to? So you have the nerve to make a public statement. Now I am going to check and see how much you’ve done so I can determine whether your statement has any value.”