Anna Deavere Smith Is Bringing Black Lives Matter to the Stage

An interview with the actress and mass-incarceration activist.

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A year and a half ago, I met a man who had spent most of his life inside a men's maximum-security prison. His experiences had inspired a play called Whorl Inside a Loop, and we were at the opening in New York. I had been asked to interview him, but I was nervous; I wondered what he'd done and whether he was dangerous.

I'll never forget our conversation for its profound effect on me. I had expected toughness, but the man who stood in front of me was crying. He told me that it was a relief and an honor to feel like his story mattered. He said he felt less alone. I realized in that moment just how much society marginalizes the incarcerated. We think of them as criminals before human beings. We devalue them and strip them of their identities — we say "Once a prisoner, always a prisoner." Worse, we label people as criminals before they've even committed a crime.

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Last November, I returned to the same theater to see Anna Deavere Smith's Notes From the Field. Based on hundreds of interviews, Anna's powerful monologue play depicts the personal accounts of students, parents, prisoners, teachers, and administrators caught in America's school-to-prison pipeline. The show shines a crucial light on the inequities of poverty, lack of opportunity, and over-aggressive policing that leads youth into the prison system. Like a lot of her work, the play is life-changing and necessary.

Anna is someone who makes me want to be smarter. She's written and performed almost 20 acclaimed one-person shows based on interviews, and her work is always urgent and inspiring. Even President Obama recognizes her transcendence — he presented her with the National Humanities Medal in 2013. We talked on the phone for half an hour about mass incarceration — but given the state of the world, we had a few other things to also mull over.

Olivia Clement: For the past 30 years, you've been interviewing people across the United States and using the material to write and perform plays that illuminate everything from racial and class tensions, to media politics, to deficiencies in the health-care system. When did you realize you could make a living that way?

Anna Deavere Smith: I didn't know that I could. I left home and moved to New York when I was 21. I had $80, an overnight bag, and I'd made a commitment that I wouldn't ask my parents for anything. My mother had already made such a sacrifice for me to go to the college [Beaver College, now Arcadia University] I went to. I wanted to be an actor, but I knew that I couldn't have a career where I was hanging out and only getting a job every once in a while. That made me very nervous. But also, I just couldn't intellectually survive that way. I thought to myself: What if I just teach? At least the classroom is fascinating, and it's hard work. My first job was teaching acting at Carnegie Mellon. It wasn't until I was 41 that I got this real fancy residency at Harvard — I was teaching at Stanford at the time — that's when I wrote a play that changed my life: Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, based off dozens of interviews, about tensions between the black and Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

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OC: Let's talk about your new play, Notes From the Field. I heard that you'd originally intended to perform it in local communities, not in big theaters?

ADS: Ferguson happened, and Black Lives Matter happened. It was one of those brief windows where the country had race and injustice on their mind. I just went directly to the people who run the theaters where I love to work the most — not through my agent — and said: "I have content and I want to get it out there. Let's see if we can get audiences talking and thinking about it." It had to be done now. I feel it is better if you can create direct relationships about creative matters or about a specific mission. Agents and managers are crucial for deals, [but] Notes From the Field is a social-justice initiative, created in a nontraditional way, [so] those first conversations had to be with theaters to make sure that we could have a shared sense of purpose with the project.

OC: It's impossible to talk about mass incarceration without talking about racial progress in America. Do you think that is a conversation that's happening enough?

ADS: I don't know. And right now, since Trump was elected, the conversation has changed dramatically, and we don't know how it's all going to fall out. There are going to be a lot of things that people are going to have to fight for, and I don't know whether the majority of the country will be able to keep their mind and eye on the problem of mass incarceration or inequality in schools. People are going to have to choose where they're putting their efforts. Things like public schools will be at risk, as well as the NEA, and the NEH. Probably the only business that will chug along without any distress will be Hollywood.

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OC: How are you feeling right now, as an artist who is so attached to political work?

ADS: I do think it's a fantastic time for art — for people who are committed and brave. I think it's also a time where people may take more chances. I think that arts organizations will be convening places to have conversations about who we are as Americans and what our values are. I want to make a shout-out to young artists and say: Get out there! If you have something to say, find friends to say it with and create new forms. Start to get your feet in the ground of being able to make a difference.

OC: The election does seem to have awoken a lot of people's activist sides.

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ADS: I can't remember a time like this in my life. I don't even think Nixon could have drawn out a crowd like the Women's March in DC. Though sometimes I get nervous about the ability of women — and the majority of women in America are white — and [what could happen] if we lose our wish to have a more equitable society … I just hope that people can protect that which is not only in their interests. That's going to be really important. I hope that we are saving the things in America that are dear to us — most of which people have fought for and there's blood on the floor about.

There are going to be a lot of things that people are going to have to fight for and people are going to have to choose where they're putting their efforts.

OC: One of the characters in Notes From the Field that stood out for me was Denise Dodson, who'd been in prison for 23 years and realized only later in life how disadvantaged she'd been by her lack of education. What message were you trying to get across there?

ADS: The point I wanted to make with Denise was that by the time she did get educated, she understood that if she'd had a better education, she would have had the ability to make better decisions. If you think about education that way — we think about it as a means to get a job or a social construct — but what it's also doing for all of us is giving us a way to think about the world and our circumstances so we can figure out what to do in any given situation.

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I did a whole series of interviews with women at Maryland Correctional Institute for Women, and another thing that was interesting to me was that many of the women were incarcerated for things that had to do with their mate — women being in the company of men, or defending themselves or their children, and they end up being incarcerated.

OC: I also loved the character of Taos Proctor, a Yurok fisherman and former inmate. How important was it for you to represent a Native American perspective in the show?

ADS: Crucial. They were here first. They are never mentioned. When I first started interviewing people, the Native Americans didn't welcome me. An important Native American poet invited me for a coffee and said: "I'm going to tell folks not to talk to you because this is not your story. It's our story." I completely understood that. Then, for some reason, a very important person in the Yurok tribe, Abby Abinanti, understood what I was doing. It meant the world to me. I was so moved that they would trust me to put the word out there. African American men are very endangered; however, my race, African Americans, has been able to make a mark in world culture. But can you name five Native American artists or designers or lawyers? No. The invisibility of these people was extraordinary to me.

OC: I recently read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, and this point you make about African American men being endangered comes up a lot, especially at an early age.

ADS: The danger exists before they're born. A neuroendocrinologist like Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University — and other people who work on something called toxic stress — would tell you that the danger goes back to the womb. Often with these kids [in poor communities], the likelihood that they're going to have some kind of relationship to guns or drugs is pretty high. That's dangerous. Even before we start to talk about the history of racism and slavery, internalized racism and the internalized oppressor, and all of that — even before we get to that, it's dangerous.

OC: Because of social media, we've got increasing exposure to real footage showing violence against people of color — some of which you use in your show. What do you think about having these images and footage be so accessible?

ADS: I think it's very helpful for people to have seen what happened to Michael Brown, or young Shakara in South Carolina. It's a reality of our time. So given that, how can we use it in a productive way?

OC: Another thing that Notes touches on is the feeling of deep shame that is associated with being incarcerated and how that lingers even once people are out of the system. How can we help bridge that gap?

ADS: There are so many ways. Universities like mine, New York University, are starting projects that bring college into prisons, and a lot of artists are working with prisoners and taking work into prisons. That wall is not as thick as we think. We went to a maximum-security prison in South Carolina with five classically trained musicians from Juilliard, and they did an amazing concert with the prisoners.

OC: There is also an economic issue at the heart of mass incarceration, because prisons are moneymaking institutions. Do you think there's enough awareness of that?

ADS: I think there are more and more things that do make that clear — take Ava DuVernay's film 13th. As more people get on that bandwagon, we'll know more about it. And it's pretty horrible.

OC: My last question for you is: How are you able to find moments of joy in these turbulent times?

ADS: I have a lot of joy. Every single person that I represent on that stage brings me joy. My work brings me an enormous amount of joy. I love talking to people, I love their stories, and I love how beautiful they are.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Olivia Clement is a playwright and journalist based in New York. She is currently writing a play about a prisoner and a whale.

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