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.
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.
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?