Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith Tackles the School-to-Prison Pipeline in New Play

The veteran actress and playwright becomes channels the voices of American history in her latest work, “Notes From the Field."

by George Kevin Jordan, December 2, 2016

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Anna Deavere Smith

"Notes From the Field"

Anna Deavere Smith’s voice is surprisingly…normal. It is soft, with contralto undertones. It rumbles with history but is not preachy. Her diction recalls formal education, but her laugh conjures up a joy that only resides from living through the many stages of life.

Mostly Smith’s voice is a mystery because while the actress, writer, and creative force behind Notes From the Field, now playing at Second Stage Theatre in New York City, speaks for over two hours, her voice is not her own during the show.

Notes, described as a documentary solo performance, is a kaleidoscope of interviews from people in, out and around the educational system talking about one of the most significant travesties of American history–the pipeline of poor children of color from schools to prison. To capture such raw emotion and so many perspectives, Smith doesn’t turn to a fictionalized narrative.

Nope.

Smith speaks in the very words of her subjects, taken from transcribed notes. There is something otherworldly about the result. It’s like watching her channel someone else’s spirit. She is the living embodiment of the Preamble of the United States Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But for Smith the purpose of Notes is simple.

“My goal is to become America word for word,” she says.

Notes From the Field is an ongoing project Smith created and reworked to understand pivotal moments in American history. Over the years, she’s created projects around the L.A. Riots, and other political moments like the debate over healthcare.

The work is truly a labor of love, according to Smith, who bears more of the front-end duties than other performers of her stature and caliber.

“A lot the challenge is just the amount of work,” she says, “I have to arrange interviews, assemble a team, raise money. I had to raise all the money until it went into production.”

She continues: “Also with anything that is new, you are learning as you do it, and you have to teach it, there is a large amount of text to learn and remember and take care of myself.”

The amount of hours for the project can stagger the mind. Smith admitted to conducting more than 250 interviews for this iteration of Notes.

“I also do many different versions of the play,” Smith explains, “which takes courage, because of course it’s not ready yet.”

The play is always evolving. In 2014, a week or two into what Smith thought was a finalized show, Michael Brown was killed and the moment known simply as “Ferguson” was born.

“The mood of the country began to change,” Smith says. This is important for a work that is built on fleshing out some of the darker moments, some of the failings, of our country.

When asked if she believes her work speaks for the voiceless, the marginalized in this country, Smith is quick to correct me.

“I think everyone has a voice,” she says. “I am enriching my artistic and political voice by having an opportunity to use their voice. I don’t have more voice than anyone else. I have a bigger platform to bring light to this problem, which is that African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have their education interrupted by poverty.”

Sometimes these voices intersect during one of Smith’s performances, and a show becomes something more interactive.

“It’s really important that people respond, and are present,” she says. “In some other cities I stopped a show in the middle, to have conversations. I am encouraged by the people to work while we have those questions.”

Notes is already well received and has been extended at the Second Stage until December 18th. Smith is used to accolades for her work. She received a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, as well as two Obie Awards and Tony nominations. Her play, Fires In the Mirror, was a runner up for a Pulitzer Prize. She is the founder and director of the Institute On the Arts And Civic Dialogue at New York University, which is dedicated to helping artists who have work that tackles pressing issues of the day.

Some folks might be willing to just soak up the praise and wait for awards season. On the phone, however, Smith points out the higher calling of artists and audience alike.

“I hope the new administration, which is certainly staking the claim for a different America,” Smith says, “I hope that we as African-Americans don’t get tired and hide as a whole. This really is a time to step forward and do something for people who are worse off than we are. Many of our people are suffering right now. Many of us have to get on board.”


See Notes From the Field at at the Second Stage Theatre in New York City until December 18.

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