Actress, playwright, and teacher Anna Deavere Smith—as well known for her work on camera (Nurse Jackie, The West Wing) as she is for her searing, docu-style plays (Let Me Down Easy, Twilight: Los Angeles)—is bringing her latest experiment to the American Repertory Theater.
Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education explores what Deavere Smith calls “the school-to-prison pipeline,” a world in which low-income students face 25 percent dropout rates and where one in three men of color will spend time in the penal system. It is a world where rich kids are allowed to be mischievous, but poor kids get jail time, like in one 2013 incident that set all of this in motion for her.
Deavere Smith interviewed hundreds of people across the country for the play, and she will bring roughly two dozen of them to life on stage. For the second act—and this is where we come in—she turns to us.
When I was reading about this play, the impetus behind it, and all of the work that you’ve done for it, I came across one quote that seemed to perfectly explain the whole situation. In 1967, Dr. King said, “Consider, for example … a nation gorged on money while millions of its citizens are denied a good education, adequate health services, decent housing, meaningful employment, and even respect, and are then told to be responsible.” Wow.
That’s very interesting. I think it sums up one aspect of it, and that aspect is the extent to which people would say that the solution to poverty is “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and that the solution to the problem in the schools is just “do what your teacher says.” There are assumptions that are about the order that is required, the obedience that is required, and the grit that’s required in order to accomplish what you need to accomplish and thrive in this society. King is really talking about a time in our history when we still were close enough to slavery and Jim Crow, and people were still very, very marked by that; the spirit of these people had been broken because they’ve been treated like chattel, and so you expect them to be able to come out of a traumatic experience and be productive. But now I think the problem is more complicated because we can’t just say that the people are failing. The institutions are failing the people.
It isn’t just a systemic failure, then. This school-to-prison pipeline starts at home, it starts with your friends and the climate around you.
Well, it started a couple generations ago for a lot of the people that I’m interested in. In cities, like my city, Baltimore, even though I grew up in a de facto segregation, nobody was as bad off as the people are who are bad off now. I mean, really really bad. One of the reasons I’m doing this project is because, in my career, I haven’t really dealt with anything that has to do with me—I mean, me as a human, not me as Anna Deavere Smith. This project is like I’m going home because my mother was a teacher, all her friends were teachers, my aunts were teachers. I watched, in a very real way, my mother changing lives. I think it’s wrong to call the school a prison pipeline. I don’t think it’s fair because it’s just one aspect of the pipeline. Some people say the pipeline starts in the womb, other people say, “Don’t do that, you blame the mother.” Put blame aside, it started a few generations ago in poverty and so a lot of the children who are in trouble now are in families where their parents are in trouble, their grandparents are in trouble.
You talk about having this self-regulation that you got from your mother and your aunt.
Well, I grew up in a very strict environment, and nobody does anymore. These are the people who write, talk, and advocate for social and emotional learning, that’s what that’s about. Children—we want them to do what the teacher says, but they come to school without the self-regulation to get through even kindergarten. And that does start with the difficulty of parenting in poverty. And the difficulty of the child, I think, learning how to socialize in a society around them which is in complete disarray.
One of the fascinating things that you do with this play is that you turn it over to the audience in the second act.
Thanks for asking that, that’s really why I’m here. My big experiment is how can I get the audience to do some of this work. ’Cause, you know, we all like to claim that art can change the world, you know, what would humanity be without us, “Oh, my goodness, arts taken out of the schools, that’s such a—” yeah, that’s all true, but on the other hand, if we feel that we are such potential catalysts—catalysts for what? I’m not a snob: One of my happiest moments of this year was getting to be in a television show called DC: Legends of Tomorrow—but the fact is, the work I’ve dedicated myself to is work that does have a mission to be alongside the people who know more about really organizing and activating people than I do. There are different kinds of spaces that we can do it in and we don’t fully use those spaces: churches, schools to some extent, and then places where we make and share art. We’ve got all these strangers sitting in the room, and is there a way to get them thinking, talking, doing something about what’s in front of us?
What are you hoping comes out of this audience interaction?
I really think one of the great opportunities is for the people who we call “facilitators.” There’s a huge opportunity to think of them as a new kind of theater worker, or new arts worker. I think there’s a really great potential of that group of, say, 25 to 30 people who are going to see the show every night, and they’re going to talk to groups every night who come away from that knowing a lot more about their community. It’s almost like being in a bunch of focus groups, and I hope that they become a community of caring people who, when the play is gone, when the circus leaves town, they kind of say, “Well, I don’t want it to be over—I want to see you tomorrow. What can we do together?” I’m being very mindful about how I choose people and how I organize their training. I want something to happen for them. I leave the theater and the best I can leave behind is a memory of my work; maybe I’ve inspired somebody else to make another work, maybe if I’m very, very, very, very, very lucky I’ve left the theater in a slightly better financial situation so maybe they’ll invite me back. Or maybe I’ve left some ideas behind. And, of course, I take things with me. But it’s not entirely tangible. If you could leave a city or an environment and you’ve left behind a new way of thinking in that town, to me, that’s what I’m working towards. I actually feel that the Harvard community is one of the best communities to anchor something like this. I think this town, with all its colleges and its basic spirit, is full of thinking, thoughtful people who do want to be in conversation or have some kind of mission about their own citizenry.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: DOING TIME IN EDUCATION. RUNS 8.20–9.17 AT LOEB DRAMA CENTER, 64 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.