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.
“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.”
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.”