It’s the rare actress who doesn’t want to be seen. But that’s the power of acclaimed performer and playwright Anna Deavere Smith’s work, and why her one-woman show Notes From the Field, filmed for an HBO special airing Saturday after a celebrated off-Broadway run in 2016, is so electrifying.
Smith, known for her screen work in The West Wing and Nurse Jackie and who co-stars in Shonda Rhimes’ upcoming For the People, conducted more than 250 interviews to assemble Notes From the Field, her siren-call one-woman show that explores race and justice in America through a focused examination of the school-to-prison pipeline. Out of those interviews, she brings to life 18 different characters on stage, all real-life people, from former inmates and protestors to Congressman John Lewis and James Baldwin.
Her work has been described as “making empathy an art form.” While she agrees with the notion that she has an empathic imagination, she thinks it might be simpler than that: “I’m chasing that which is not me.”
“In the last 40 years, this idea of self-actualization, becoming yourself—be who you are, show us who you are, write about your experience, stand up for your experience—that’s important because that did change the canon,” she tells The Daily Beast during a recent interview at HBO’s midtown offices. “But I wasn’t interested in doing that. I wasn’t interested in writing about 3701 Springdale Avenue, where I grew up in Baltimore.”
Smith has always been intrigued by the idea of creating portraits of people who are very different from her, typically enveloping their stories into an issue-based narrative—Fires in the Mirror dealt with the Crown Heights riot of 1991; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 the riots in L.A.—creating a way of educating through humanity.
What she does, she clarifies, is “trying to become invisible.”
“I would say that my generation in art was about making yourself and others who had been invisible visible,” she says. “I’m really not interested in doing that in public at all. But I don’t mind being invisible, and then projecting forth somebody else.“
The success with which she manages this disappearing act is remarkable. Relying only on the slightest changes of wardrobe in Notes From the Field—a blazer here, a rolled-up sleeve there—she contorts her face, modulates her voice, slouches or struts, shrinks, and swaggers, to the point where it’s as if her body has been possessed by the people she’s portraying.
She starts the show as Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president and director, who asserts that “it is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education,” explaining the government’s role in the systemic racism that populates the school-to-prison pipeline.
Then she morphs into Kevin Moore, the deli worker who captured the beating of Freddie Gray on video, who champions the camera as “the only thing we have to protect ourselves.” After that, she’s Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California, who is rattled by his time in an elementary school classroom in which every student knew an adult who had been shot to death. “What’s your goal?” Tubbs remembers asking the kids. “I just want to be alive at 25,” they responded. “It’s heartbreaking. But that’s how the nihilism manifests itself: prison or death.”
At one point in the show she’s Jamal Harrison Bryant, the pastor and founder of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, presiding over the funeral of Freddie Gray. Her voice booms to the rafters as she leads the audience in a chant: “No justice! No peace!” At another point, she’s diminutive, seated on a chair as Niya Kenny, a teenager who recorded a viral video of a white police officer assaulting her classmate, explaining why she refuses to turn a blind eye to such injustice.
When we talk, Smith repeatedly brings up Bree Newsome, the artist and activist she plays in Notes From the Field who scaled a flagpole in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds.
“I feel foolish when I’m with Bree,” Smith says at one point. “Because she climbed a flag pole. I did not climb anything. She’s very faith-driven. She said God called her to do it. I don’t care how loud God was yelling, I wouldn’t be able to make myself get up that flag pole.”
She erupts with laughter as the anecdote becomes part of the greater point: her reverence of the people whose work she hopes her play spotlights.
“I really feel the palpable difference between myself and the people in the trenches,” she says. “They’re saving lives. I always feel a little bit foolish in their presence. It’s a little bit like I’m pleased that they’re talking to me, but there’s a sense that I have to leave quickly so they can do their work.”
The timing of Notes From the Field’s airing, as the cauldron of debate over race, justice, gun violence, class, and politicization bubbles over, certainly grants it immediacy. As much as Notes From the Field examines the loss and struggle for life, rights, and human dignity, it also sparks a dialogue about hope and forgiveness.
There’s an intensely emotional moment near the end of the play when Smith is portraying Congressman John Lewis, and, at her light prompting as Lewis, the audience begins to sing the chorus to “Amazing Grace.” Smith has spent a lot of time thinking about a particular line in the song, one that is often used at political rallies and marches: “saved a wretch like me.”
It’s not a wretch like you, she stresses. It’s a wretch like me. She asked Lewis during one of their conversations what he thought that line meant, and he told her, “We’re all falling short. We’re all just trying to make it. We’re all just searching.”
“That’s a very hopeful and loving idea about our condition, who we are,” Smith says. “It’s a very charitable idea. That’s really hard to have right now in the world. You know, to say he’s fallen short. President Trump, he’s just trying to make it. He’s searching.”
Smith was actually performing Notes From the Field off-Broadway during the 2016 election, and had a performance the day after the election. She lets out a heavy sigh when we ask her about that night. “Awful, just awful,” she says shaking her head. “It was just like a tomb. It was palpable. It was just like, whoa, there’s nothing I can do to light this up. There’s nothing I can do to inspire these people. It was like a heavy weight.”
She lets out a little chuckle: “But I’m proud of that audience that they showed up. They could’ve gone to a bar.”
It’s fitting, then, that the final act of Notes From the Field is headlined “Resistance.” It’s a word that is at the tip of the cultural conversation at the moment, particularly as a student body of teenagers from Parkland, Florida, has galvanized the country in a fight against the NRA and Congress’ inaction on gun control.
“Look at Bree climbing that flag pole, risking herself,” Smith says, referencing what she calls “the beauty of resistance.”
“Young Emma Gonzalez,” she continues, name-checking the Parkland student whose fiery call to action went viral. “That she’s able to be who she is, speaking without speech coaches or anybody working with her to be on message or on point or whatever these people make hundreds of dollars an hour to do consulting, she is an emblem of resistance. Big, grown-up people on CNN are admiring this child who has that, because it’s real.”