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.”

‘Crown Heights’ — a story of wrongful conviction that plays it too safe Stories of black men victimized by the prison system have their tropes, but the characters here don’t feel real

Six years into a 21-year stay in a New York state prison, Colin Warner, the lead character of the new film Crown Heights, is writing a letter.

“Most prisoners know deep down they put themselves here,” he writes. “But I don’t have that comfort.”

Written and directed by Matt Ruskin, Crown Heights uses a 2005 This American Life episode as the basis for its story, charting Warner’s path from freedom to state-sanctioned captivity to freedom once again. The real-life story is harrowing: Brooklyn, New York, police badgered witnesses into falsely fingering Warner for a crime he didn’t commit, and prosecutors used the alternative facts squeezed from those compromised teenage witnesses to send an innocent man to prison for second-degree murder. Once there, he ended up spending more time behind bars than the man who actually committed the crime.

Transposed to a feature-length film, however, Warner’s story loses its gasp-worthy qualities. The film just isn’t biting enough to make Warner a mascot for the race-based injustice that pervades the American criminal justice system.

Instead, it’s a series of prison tropes held together with flashbacks and news clips of American presidents espousing how tough they are on crime. We see Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) struggle to comprehend the loss of agency over his own body as he’s checked into prison, and how he discovers every friendly gesture from a fellow prisoner carries a price. Crown Heights follows Warner’s life from the day he was arrested in 1980 until the day he’s finally released but does little to advance the narrative that black men are systematically victimized by mass incarceration.

Perhaps that’s because Warner, who is West Indian, doesn’t connect his plight with that of American-born black men. If that’s the case, Crown Heights doesn’t effectively communicate that point, and the clearest indication that it’s trying to is the one line from Warner’s letter about prisoners knowing that they put themselves upstate.

Lakeith Stanfield as Colin Warner and Natalie Paul as Antoinette in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

We see Warner enter a relationship with a woman, Antoinette (Natalie Paul), whom he eventually marries while imprisoned. But lost are the details that would illustrate how their relationship went from platonic to sexual. Why does Antoinette like Colin so much? What does she feel about him, aside from anguish and pity about his imprisonment? It’s almost impossible to say, because we don’t see it. What’s missing are the small, intimate events of daily life that can slow a film down but are necessary for viewers to connect with its characters.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in ‘Crown Heights.’

Courtesy of IFC Films

Former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, husband of actress Kerry Washington, co-stars as Carl King, Warner’s friend who never stops working to exonerate him. We see King’s wife get frustrated that King is dedicating so many resources to freeing his friend that he stops paying attention to his own family. But it’s tough to get a sense of how all of these figures are coping with their lots. In the course of making too many safe choices, Crown Heights ends up not saying much at all.

As with previous roles in Short Term 12 and Get Out, much of what Stanfield brings to the screen he communicates through his eyes. Stanfield’s presence introduces a sense of calm and introspection when everything around him is clearly unstable, but Asomugha doesn’t provide enough of a contrast for Stanfield’s quiet suffering.

The story of Colin Warner is a tale of someone’s humanity being disregarded and discarded. Yet Crown Heights fails to push past that initial hook to communicate much else. The inclusion of Clinton, Bush and Reagan is a start, but Ruskin fails to connect their tough-on-crime policies to Warner’s life. In the film’s last political interlude, when the audience has been primed to expect to see the face of George H. W. Bush, Ruskin uses footage of New York Gov. George Pataki instead. This decision only muddles the message. Are these powerful white men responsible for Warner’s imprisonment, or are they mile markers for the time he’s served? Or both?

There are few conclusions to draw from the film aside from “wrongful imprisonment is bad” — and, well, that should be obvious. It’s a shame that beyond that, Crown Heights doesn’t have a whole lot to say.

With the new movie ‘Crown Heights,’ Nnamdi Asomugha relies on everything he learned from football The former superstar cornerback won Sundance with the story of a man who went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Nnamdi Asomugha is taking a quick break.

There’s a photographer, and the photographer’s assistant is setting up a new orangish background. Asomugha, in a gray Converse crewneck and slim-fit black pants, overhears a conversation that’s disdainful of grimy movie theaters and movie theater chains.

He jumps in, makes a funny face and shakes his head adamantly in disagreement. Asomugha loves movie theaters. Always has. When he wasn’t on a football field — the former Cal Bear and first-round draft pick spent his first eight National Football League seasons with the Oakland Raiders — he would sneak into theaters and sit there all day, soaking it up, consuming content and daring to dream of something beyond academics and athletics.

At the Manhattan photo shoot, the Pro Bowler gives a sly smile. This is a full-circle moment.

For 11 seasons, Asomugha was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. After his years with the Raiders and stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, he walked away from the NFL in 2013 at age 32 via a one-day contract with the Oakland Raiders so that he could officially retire in the city in which he came of age. A true shutdown corner, Asomugha retired with 15 interceptions, 80 passes defensed and two sacks.

Oakland Raiders’ Nnamdi Asomugha (21) breaks up pass intended for Dallas Cowboys’ Keyshawn Johnson (19).

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But if you don’t know his name for those reasons, don’t worry, soon you will — and it’ll have absolutely nothing to do with football.

Asomugha is an actor. And a producer. And not because he’s indulging an ego-driven post-athletic career fantasy realized through his ability to cut a big enough check and buy his way onto a set. No. As an actor, Asomugha expertly brings to the screen the story of a man we all should know about — and as a producer, he’s brilliant at finding and financing stories that need to be told.

His Crown Heights, which opens in select New York theaters this week and has a wide release next week, is the true story of Colin Warner, a Trinidadian resident of the Brooklyn neighborhood Crown Heights who was wrongly accused and convicted of murder. Warner served 21 years for the crime, while his best friend, played by Asomugha, tirelessly worked to prove his innocence.

He also happens to be married to Kerry Washington (Scandal, Cars 3, Confirmation), and like his wife of four years — they have two children, Isabelle and Caleb — Asomugha rarely speaks publicly about their marriage or partnership, preferring instead to focus on the work. And it’s understandable, especially in his case, considering that his ambition to become an actor dates back years — before he married his wife in 2013 even, and years before she became famous. The furthest thing from Asomugha’s mind is attaching himself, and this full deep dive into a new career, to his famous and famously talented wife, who happens to be one of very few black women in Hollywood who can consistently commandeer mainstream magazine covers.

Asomugha’s focus is on this second act — and on getting people to see beyond his storied football career. Especially now that he’s doing the thing that ignites him as much as covering wide receivers used to.

“Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close’ …”

“I went to the Los Angeles Kings game,” he said, “and the national anthem started playing. Anytime the anthem comes on … I was fresh off of leaving football, and was just really taken by the moment. There was this [feeling] of, ‘I’m not going to be able to hear that and be ready to go on the field anymore.’ We watched the Kings win the championship, and then I went and called one of my former teammates, Charles Woodson, and said something like, ‘I need that feeling again, of getting ready to go out on the field. With the crowd and all of that.’ I was missing that.”

His friend had advice. “He said, ‘You have to find something that gives you a feeling close to that, because you’re never going to get that again. You’re never going to be able to go out on the field and get 70,000 people screaming when they announce your name. But look for whatever gets you closest to that point.’ ”

Asomugha said that maybe three or four months later, he was in New York doing a reading of a play at the Circle in the Square Theatre. “When you’re backstage,” he said, “and you’re coming out with the actors, you go through a tunnel before you get out there. And then you stop right before you go onto the stage. It was just a reading. But I had that moment. I was back in the tunnel. Then we went onstage to perform. And I felt the rush. I loved every bit of it. It was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, this is what gets me close. …”

Asomugha was born in 1981 in Lafayette, Louisiana, to Igbo parents. He loathes the term “Hollywood” as an adjective. He mock-scowls — hard — when he hears it being said. Asomugha was reared in Los Angeles, the entertainment industry nestled practically in his backyard. But “going Hollywood” is akin to someone saying you’re fake. Or out for self. Or perhaps more mystified by the bling than the hard work. “That’s not,” he said, “me.”

André Chung for The Undefeated

Who he is: a guy who came up in a Nigerian family that celebrated academic excellence and embraced the high arts. The creative space has always had a strong hold on him. It came to him naturally, more so, even, than his athletic prowess. “I come from a performing family,” he said. “My parents are Nigerian, and their parents and their parents — and it’s all about performance in their culture, you know. The music. The dancing … you’re told to stand out at family gatherings and perform in some sort of way. You’re just kind of born into it,” he said. “Me and my siblings … were forced to get up in the church and do some sort of play for the rest of the church. We’re like 7, 8 years old. It’s just what you had to do. It was always sort of in my blood.”

But the performing arts had to be a quiet passion. Especially once he got older. Football was king. So was basketball. And he played both at Narbonne High School in Harbor City, California.

“We took piano lessons. And I remember going to football practice — me and my brother. We were late to practice one time, and … I remember the coach standing us up in front of the whole team and just saying, ‘Nnamdi’s late, guys, and I wanted to tell you, he had a piano lesson.’ Everyone’s laughing, and I’m just sitting there like …” He shakes his head at the memory. “That stuff wasn’t cool at all.”

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football.”

He shifted. Went full throttle into football, leaving the creative arts, and his equally passionate desire to excel in them, behind. It wasn’t until years later in college — he attended and played for the University of California, Berkeley — that he was reminded it was possible to live in and do well in both worlds.

“It was my junior year at Cal. A [teammate] of mine came up to us after practice like, ‘Hey, guys, I’m doing a performance down at Wheeler [Hall].’ I don’t even know what the play was. Like Porgy and Bess or something. Immediately I started making fun of him. You make fun of someone when they start talking about this, especially in the football world. I got all the guys to make fun. Like, ‘This guy, he’s doing a play!’ We went there to clown him,” Asomugha said. “[But] I’ll never forget he was brilliant onstage. I will never forget it … because it was one of the moments where I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is cool. This is OK, even though we play football.’ He opened my mind up.”

Cal Berkeley rid Asomugha of his own boundaries. It was transformative. He loved football, and knew he’d make a career out of it, but he also knew that when football was over, he’d transition into something more creative. And it was football, ironically — even with that early atmosphere of being anti anything that didn’t scream hypermasculinity — that gave Asomugha the confidence to pursue the creative arts. He’s appeared in the Friday Night Lights television series, as well as on The Game and Leverage; he collected his first credit in 2008.

“Football taught me so much just about life,” he said. “The confidence of me being onstage or performing in some sort way … that was nurtured … and blossomed because of football. Just being able to do things that you didn’t think you can do, that you can’t turn around. You have to do it and doing it in front of thousands, and then millions, that are watching. You’re onstage. It’s not that I don’t have the fear, it’s just that I know how to handle the fear, you know? I can have the fear and still think.”

For the new Crown Heights, Asomugha didn’t make it easy on himself.

He helps tell the real story of Colin Warner. In 1980, Warner was wrongly convicted of murder. In the film, which is based on a This American Life episode, Asomugha portrays Warner’s best friend Carl King, the man who devoted his life to proving his friend’s innocence, and to getting him out of prison. Lakeith Stanfield portrays Warner, and the film is an important moment for both actors. Stanfield pulls off an emotionally complex role, and Asomugha displays impressive dramatic chops.

Nnamdi Asomugha as Carl King in the new film “Crown Heights.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“One of the interesting things about Nnamdi is how calm and assertive he is,” said executive producer Jonathan Baker, who founded I Am 21 with Asomugha. “He’s an extraordinarily even-keeled individual. His experience with sports created a sense of get-up-and-do-it-again. The discipline. People respond to him as a natural leader, and it’s evident in everything that we do.”

Asomugha even nails a very distinct Trinidadian accent. “He took it seriously,” Carl King himself said of Asomugha’s portrayal. “He’d call me and ask me questions. ‘Am I bothering you?’ It seemed like he just wanted to do the best job he could have done. And he told me he wanted to do the story justice. It’s a deep story. It’s not one of the stories that you can make up. This is a story about an injustice that was done to this kid in 1980. He had to endure 21 years of the very worst. And portraying me? I’m very pleased.”

The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year and was a critical darling and a fan favorite, nabbing the Audience Award. And Asomugha was ready for the moment, good and bad, both as a producer and a co-star of the film.

“This is cool. This is OK, even though we play football. It’s OK to live in both worlds.”

“I’ve played for the Raiders and the Eagles,” Asomugha said before laughing, “Those fans will prepare you for any event that you have to go through in life! I’m able to explore and just take risks, and just really go after something that I’m passionate about. I can take whatever’s going to be thrown at me.”

That preparedness was crucial.

“I didn’t bat an eye. Football taught me was how important the preparation is before the actual moment. And then when you get into the moment, being able to throw away the preparation and just hope that it’s in you somewhere, that it stayed in you. And that’s what I think with this,” he said. “The project came [along, and it] didn’t feel daunting. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can’t believe this!’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve trained for this. I’m excited. I can’t wait to go into a character [and] put something on film! And then it got such a great reception at Sundance, so I was happy.”

There’s more coming from Asomugha. He’s hell-bent on bringing more stories like Crown Heights, which will be co-distributed by Amazon Studios and IFC, to life. Asomugha’s company, I Am 21, is prepping to shoot the highly anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic. It’ll be an important film: Tony winner Cynthia Erivo is starring, and it tells the story of the former slave-turned-abolitionist who worked tirelessly as an Underground Railroad conductor, nurse and spy.

The plan is to start shooting sometime this fall, and Asomugha said the film falls right in line with the mission of I Am 21.

“There’s an element of true story, an element of stories that connect to social issues that effect some sort of change in the world,” he said. “There’s also fun stories that aren’t true, but just have amazing characters at the center. Whether it’s a woman or it’s a person of color, whether it’s a person [who is] just ‘other’ … telling the underdog stories, and how they’ve risen out of that.”

And as for the future of his own acting career? He’s been ready. “I’m the type of person that always has a goal of greatness,” he said. “My mindset is, I can take all the chances in the world. I don’t put stress on myself. What I do is enjoy preparation. It’s just who I am.

André Chung for The Undefeated

“There was a long stretch where practice was much harder than games for me. I felt a level of dominance and being in the zone, for years. Game after game, after game — practice was always harder. So, if there’s any level of stress in this, it’s not being onstage, it’s not the moment that the camera turns on. It’s the preparation that comes before that.”