It isn’t by happenstance or accidental that black and brown youth in America are pushed outside of the classroom and into prisons. While white students are given detention or a warning for their poor behavior or missed assignments, the same infraction committed by black pupils often results in suspension and then expulsion, which plants seeds for a life in and out of America’s prisons.
In 2013, Tony and Pulitzer nominated writer Anna Deavere Smith interviewed 250 people. Of this group, the author/actress selected 18 men, women, students, lawmakers, doctors, educators, pastors and activists, before performing their answers in a one-woman off-Broadway play. Adapted into a film for HBO, Notes From The Field finds Smith embodying the words, phrases, accents, mannerisms, and personalities of her various subjects. Everyone from Baltimore protester Allen Bullock — who was given a 12-year sentence for destroying a car during the uprisings following Freddie Gray’s death — to Denise Dodson — a woman serving a life sentence who’s found purpose in the dogs she trains — were among those whose responses were reenacted.
Notes From The Field also demonstrates what happens when a government and society punishes a people for the poverty they’ve been restricted to, and the educational resources they’ve been denied. Smith slips from one personality to another in her 90-minute play, taking on the graceful personality and southern tongue of Congressman John Lewis, while in another scene, embodying the forceful nature of Tony Eady, a federal penitentiary worker turned education specialist who rules with an iron fist.
VIBE caught up with Smith at HBO’s New York headquarters to discuss the physical demand her one-woman play has placed on her vocal chords, how she’s able to not let the frustration and sadness of the show get to her and why Notes From The Field is actually an invitation for change.
VIBE: How do you hold onto the frustration of the school-to-prison pipeline and use it in your art without letting it consume you?
Anna Deavere Smith: I’m an actor, so when I walk into the theater I leave certain aspects of my life and consciousness behind. I get to the theater at 2 o’clock in the afternoon for an 8 o’clock show. I meditate. I pray. I review my lines. I warm up my voice. I warm up my body. Somebody does my hair and makeup and then I go on stage. And it is exhausting and when I leave, I try to leave it all on the stage. I then go home and I take a bath, go to sleep, get up, go to the gym and I start that whole process. The whole point is to just leave it on the stage.
There’s footage of a South Carolina deputy violently removing a teenage girl from a chair. Did that not have an effect on you?
I think I’m more affected by the process and speaking the words and embodying the words, for sure. I went to Rwanda 10 years after the genocide and one of the many things that we did was visit a place that still had the corpses. There was a mass grave, and they dug up the mass grave and they had a chemical way of saving the corpses. I and the photographer that I was with were walking around–Rwandans speak in very soft voices–so our guide was like ‘Look at this one. You can see from his head he was crying.’ At one point we looked at one corpse and it was like that [Edvard Munch] painting The Scream. Either I said it to my friend the photographer, or she said it to me, ‘it’s like The Scream‘ and we caught ourselves. This is not a work of art, this is real. This was a real human being, and you kind of have to cut yourself off from looking at the aesthetics of it.
Which one of the interviewees was the hardest to embody and translate on stage? And which one was the most liberating?
Everybody’s hard, but I think learning Allen [Bullock] and Kevin [Moore] were challenging. They were challenging because of my desire to be meticulous. Kevin used the expression ‘You know what I’m saying?’ a lot and you can’t just put it any old way. You have to say it the way he says it.
Like punctuation, almost.
Yes. It’s not everywhere, so where is it really? And with Allen who’s 10 years younger, it’s ‘You feel me?’ I had somebody who came to every single show every night and then the next day would come to hair and makeup and would say to me ‘You didn’t say it.’ Obviously, [Pastor] Bryant was challenging vocally. To do that every night, and to keep your voice healthy is hard. It’s a lot of demand on my vocal chords. I would say everybody presented a different challenge.
I interviewed Pastor Bryant two years ago and it was around the time a string of black churches in the South were being burned down. He told me that the Black Lives Matter movement is the first where the church is not leading it. Do you think this is intentional?
I think the church is ambivalent about it, is my guess. When you look at Freddie Gray’s funeral that Pastor Bryant preached over, there’s a slide in the background that says Black Lives Matter and he calls no justice no peace at the end of it. We live in a very secular time. Growing up when I did, back in the old days, most black people went to church.
Every Sunday. It’s just what you did.
It’s what you did. It was the social center and I’m sure that’s out of slavery. It was the only time that we were able to be together as a group without that being suspect. We don’t live like that anymore. A lot of black people do, but that’s not mainstream American life, even when people say things like the most segregated hour in American life is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. It’s just not true anymore. With you giving that fact to me, the only religion I’m interested in is radical kindness. That’s the religion I’m fighting for.
Tony Eady rules with an iron fist. He’s been in situations where he’s had to de-escalate things and he once said he thinks officers should be in the school. How did you feel interviewing him knowing that line of thinking aids in the school-to-prison pipeline?
I was crazy about Tony Eady. Interestingly enough, I knew there were black people in the audience if they laughed during Tony Eady’s part.
Oh yeah. I think black people of a certain generation really identify with Tony Eady because I think the idea of discipline used to be a big deal in the black community.
You don’t think it’s still a big deal?
Not in the same way. I mean, you came in here and you said Ms. Smith. Nobody calls me Ms. Smith. I’m on Black-Ish.
Oh, well that’s how I was raised.
And I’m very appreciative.
I think in our history we have certain ideas about discipline and respect that I don’t know if they exist across the board in the black community right now. Tony Eady’s point is: ‘I worked in a federal penitentiary in Florida and I want to tell you that this is just a rehearsal, because if you don’t learn to keep your mouth shut, that’s really where you’re going to be, and that’s where people want you to be and let me tell you, when you get on that bus, and they’re driving you out to that penitentiary, you’re not going to be the same person you were when you got on that bus.’ So to me, Tony Eady’s ruling with that fist is because he does not want them to go there, and to him, he sees kids being disrespectful to the principal of the school. He knows that’s not going to end well so he’s trying to keep that from happening. You can say he rules with a fist, but I think it’s more than that. I think Tony Eady’s trying to save lives.
With all the hurt and pain that’s happening under our current administration, why should someone sit down on a Saturday night and watch Notes From The Field as opposed to seeing Black Panther?
Well, they should go see Black Panther [LAUGHS]. I haven’t seen it yet, but as soon as this press tour is over, I will. These two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Why do you think they are? Why did you put the two in the same sentence?
Because I feel like under this administration if you are a person of color, if you are any minority, you are told every day your life does not matter. To see Black Panther and to see these beautiful black men and women on the screen proving their lives matter is a wonderful feeling. Your one-woman play is amazing and well-thought-out, but it’s also a harsh reality. Why should someone invest in this much needed medicine as opposed to Black Panther which is a spoonful of sugar?
Oh, that’s interesting. Well, because this reality didn’t start with Trump.
It goes as far back as Thomas Jefferson who wrote in the Notes on The State of Virginia, even though he’s only talking about white boys, nonetheless. His plan for public education was to have a system that identified the excellent ones, and I quote ‘and throw away the rubbish.’ The way that we have sorting mechanisms in schools back that far, and the difficulty of having equal opportunity in education, goes back as far as slavery when we could be shot for reading a book. So to me the reason to watch Notes From The Field, regardless of what’s happening in Washington, regardless the crass greed that surrounds all of our lives, is because we are on a continuum that started in violence, that’s still in violence. People of means — by that I mean having a mind and having a heart–who would like us to be free should see the movie in order to see if there’s a point of contact or inspiration in that harsh reality that causes them to want to do something to save lives.
Notes From The Field airs on HBO Saturday, Feb. 24