In her new solo play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, the California Chapter, Anna Deavere Smith takes on how kids—many of them poor blacks or Latinos—are being pushed out of schools into the criminal justice system through zero-tolerance policies, school-based arrests, and law enforcement stationed on campuses.
As she’s done in her previous shows, such as Fires in the Mirror covering the 1991 riots in Crown Heights, and Let Me Down Easy, about health care, Smith interviewed people connected with the issue—in this case of judges, teachers, administrators, cops, students, and prisoners — recorded them on video and then recreates what they’ve said with every “um” and “uh” in their speech, as well as every tic and expression in their bodies.
To start Notes From the Field, Smith embodies Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who talks about how way as a society decide what to invest in.
Ifill grew up watching documentaries on civil rights with her father, and felt she’d missed being part of something important.
But there’s still a lot of “heaviness and pain” in this country, she says, and now there’s a moment to make a difference—with education.
Smith wants her play, which is showing through August 2, to help people tap into that moment. She says she tries to be humble about what theater can do, but her hopes for what it can accomplish are anything but modest.
She thinks theater gives us a place to come together, and to engage with others—a kind of forum as it was for the Greeks.
“The theater is all about dialogue, so it suggests we could be in dialogue,” she says. “It invites different points of view. It’s at the center of democracy. It gives us the opportunity to think and feel, and it gives us the opportunity to share ideas, which is difficult to do.”
Smith, a professor, playwright and actor known for her roles as a hospital administrator in Nurse Jackie as well as a national security advisor in The West Wing, made her name with this style of documentary theater in Notes From the Field.
Smith did about 170 interviews for this play, and she compares the process to having a big piece of paper up on the wall with every person she talked to adding some color and increasing her understanding.
Along with Ifill, the show includes a Yurok fisherman talking about his time in prison and a principal in Philadelphia saying that her mother noted that everyone in the family was poor—and that none of them had been to college.
So let’s try that, she told her daughter.
Many of the interviewees gave her hope with what they’re doing on behalf of kids, Smith says.
For, example, there’s the Chief Justice of California, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who at a recent conference for judges addressed how children are affected by trauma.
“I like how she talked about it simply,” Smith says. “If you’re not in school, you’re in trouble.”
Smith was also inspired by City Councilman Michael Tubbs in Stockton, California, a city that filed for bankruptcy protection in 2012, who Smith calls a passionate advocate for kids of color, and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder of Center for Youth Wellness, who studies the effect of toxic stress on children.
Burke Harris has partnered with San Francisco’s Chief of Police, which Smith applauds.
Then there’s a neuroendocrinologist at the Rockefeller University who also looks at the effect of outside environment on the brain and ways to increase its plasticity. Smith is particularly excited to see him involved.
“There are people in the science of this now, which I would say is really great because we trust scientists—we’re not so sure about sociologists,” Smith says. “I think there are lots of people doing good stuff, lots of people. And I think that’s what makes it exciting if you look at it as a problem to solve.”
Smith, a professor at New York University, wanted to do a project on education and felt this was a good way in. Lots of other aspects of American life interest her, she says—the military, guns, and war among them.
“Susan Sontag told me I should do a play on war way back in the ‘90s, and I thought that was kind of a scary idea,” she says. “I haven’t really dealt with money. It’s implied in everything I do because what I do is about social justice by and large. So a lot of American culture is untapped for me.”
Smith did her interviews for Notes from the Field in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she got her MFA in acting from the American Conservatory Theater, in Philadelphia, and in her hometown of Baltimore where her mother—and her mother’s friends were all teachers.
She went to Baltimore in May, soon after a police officer shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, so the issue of racial inequality in schools as well as in society at large was foremost on people’s mind.
Smith started this project thinking education could be the next civil rights movement. Now she’s not as sure.
Notes From the Field includes some video of Freddie Gray’s arrest, for which Baltimore police officers were charged with homicide.
She also interviewed the man who videotaped it, a deli worker, who still seems baffled by the brutality with which Gray was treated.
He says he was convinced people needed to see it and took it to all the news outlets he could think of. Smith also includes videos of the protests in Baltimore, and an interview with a protestor who got arrested who talks about how the police feel they can treat him and his friends any way they want.
“I think with Ferguson and technology (she means the impact of video technology) and the number of short, sad films we have about police officers and communities and the things they do to citizens, I would say right now people are thinking more about that,” she says. “That’s what makes people march in the streets. I don’t know how you get people marching in the streets about education. It’s sort of hard. But it’s not impossible.”
For the second act of Notes from the Field, the audience splits into smaller groups and Youth Speaks, an arts education program, facilitate discussions with audience members on how to create change in the schools and for children.
Coming back after the second act, Smith embodies a Latino artist she talked with for her play about racial unrest after the Rodney King verdict, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.
The painter talks about how white teachers always treated him badly growing up in Southern California, and how he doesn’t want to hate anymore.
She also impersonates writer James Baldwin in a 1970 interview with anthropologist Margaret Mead. Baldwin quotes a poem by an incarcerated youth: “Walk on water. Walk on a leaf. Hardest of all is walking grief.”
Smith thinks the theater is a natural place for activism to find a voice. Look at how directly the arts and popular culture were involved in movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as civil rights and the anti-way movement, she says.
“Aretha Franklin singing a song like Think—‘Think about what you’re trying to do to me’—it’s not just about a love affair,” she says.
Or as Bonnie Raitt told her during an interview once: “The blues and a lot of this music is basically saying, ‘Don’t treat me this way. Don’t do me like this.’ It’s speaking to the social problems of the time. It’s speaking to the need for justice. I think that expression is always a part of human transformation.”