Anna Deavere Smith takes on 'school-to-prison pipeline' in new show

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

With reports of police abuse, racial unrest and murderous hate crimes in the news on a daily basis since Ferguson, has Anna Deavere Smith, whose solo work has long grappled with issues of social justice, become discouraged?

"Oh, no!" she said, almost taken aback by the idea. "Because I'm a dramatist, I like moments when there's something unsettled. I'm in this business of looking at conflict. Conflict is never absent. It's just that when it gets exposed, more people are concerned about it."

After tackling such thorny topics as the riots after the Rodney King beating verdict in "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and healthcare and mortality in "Let Me Down Easy," Smith has turned her attention to another flashpoint, the "school-to-prison pipeline." This is the subject of "Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter," now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through Aug. 2.

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Smith, accompanied by bassist Marcus Shelby, transforms herself into the experts and witnesses she has consulted, including the late educational philosopher Maxine Greene, Councilman Michael Tubbs from Stockton, Taos Proctor, a Yurok fisherman and former inmate, and Dr. Victor Carrion of Stanford Early Stress Research Program. Together they deepen our understanding of the growing number of young people from largely poor, urban and minority communities who are stuck on what reformers are calling "pathways to prison."

As the term "school-to-prison pipeline" has gained greater currency — even the White House is using it — a belated spotlight has fallen on one of the key contributors to mass incarceration in this country. The debate over its source is fueled with controversy, but it's clear that the underlying situation has been exacerbated by inadequate school resources that make it harder for teachers to compensate for the environmental deficits of their students. In addition, "zero-tolerance" disciplinary policies have been criticized for criminalizing student misbehavior and increasing the suspension rates, leaving youngsters more vulnerable to the streets.

Conservatives point to broken homes and the failure of individual responsibility; liberals talk about unemployment, chronic stress and cutbacks in supportive services. The infestation of gangs, guns and drugs has made the situation more deadly.

But Smith is convinced — as is President Obama, who has made this a priority of his second term — that the moment has come to confront these concerns with holistic thinking and ingenuity.

In keeping with her minimalist documentary theater style, patented in "Fires in the Mirror" and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," two urban mosaics of racial unrest, Smith impersonates her interview subjects by doing little more than finding the trick of their voices. She lets the verbatim testimonies do the talking and rebutting, but her moral authority and compassionate engagement are palpable throughout.

An expert interviewer, Smith is warm and personable when being interviewed. Sipping juice at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco, she's clearly comfortably speaking in her own voice — something that rarely happens in her solo work.

As stately and elegant in person as she is onstage, Smith was in what might be described as a relaxed hurry — the normal state of affairs for an artist who is also an academic and White House-visiting public intellectual, not to mention an actress looking for work now that the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie" has ended. But she was eager to talk about what Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, whose words make up the piece's "overture," considers the civil rights challenge of our era.

"Basically, what she's saying is that we can do anything in this country," Smith explained. "They decided they wanted suburbs and they built a whole highway system to support it. You can do anything at this level, but we need to really pay attention in the next three years because this is going to be a time when there's a chance to do something new."

The reason, said Smith, is that the system of mass incarceration, which "has gotten completely out of control," has to come down — "that is one issue both Democrats and Republicans agree on."

The U.S. has less than 5% of the world's population and more than 20% of the world's prisoners. Among large nations, America not only has the highest rate of incarceration but imprisons more people than any other, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.

At the Academy Awards this year, Common and John Legend, upon accepting their Oscars for the song "Glory" from the film "Selma," called worldwide attention to the problem in their galvanizing acceptance speech, in which Legend pointed out that "there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850."

Smith, who had tested out "Notes From the Field" in the Bay Area last summer, recognized opportunity when she saw it.

"Usually, the public and particularly the press resent it when a movie star says anything political," she said. "But this year there were about six people who, upon accepting their awards, made a statement about the need for further well being, whether it's about Alzheimer's or John Legend announcing that this country incarcerates more people than any other in the world. I read that in a 500-page report, but how many people are going to read a 500-page report? But they're going to remember John Legend."

Exposure can make it seem like a condition is worsening, but Smith sees it as a healthy development. "Since I started working on this project you could almost have a film festival of short videos of police attacking African Americans," she said. "That started with Ferguson. I think Americans see that stuff and say, 'That's not us.' Technology is allowing us to have this conversation. The question is, how can you leverage this moment?"

The presidential election, she said, only raises the stakes. Yet she's hopeful that, in a period when the discussion over inequality transcends race, a consensus is building around an economic argument for policy shifts.

"We've been spending enormous money on the back-end of the problem," she said. "You know how much it costs to have a person incarcerated? Sherrilyn Ifill says it's not that we've stopped investing in mental health resources, but that we've been doing it in prisons. The most eloquent people are saying these resources need to be put on the front end, so that interventions can be made in communities of poverty.

"It's not going to be cheap, but why not spend some of the money earlier?" she asked. "Because, remember, for a long time before these people were in prison they were doing things that were not productive for society."

How can an artist provoke real-world action? It's a question that Smith has been thinking about long and hard since she was an artist in residence at the Ford Foundation. It was the reason she started at Harvard the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which has relocated to New York University, where Smith is a professor.

For the Berkeley production of "Notes From the Field," Smith has been conducting a novel experiment with her audience. In the second act, theatergoers are divided into groups that are led by a facilitator in the lobby and courtyard areas. Questions are raised to get the audience to link the material to their own lives. Pads and pens are distributed, along with snacks, and audience members are invited (though not compelled) to share their thoughts on what change might look like.

Before reconvening inside the theater for the coda, everyone is asked to make a commitment to do something tangible. The Twitter account @adspipeline and the hashtag "NotesFromTheField" have been set up so that these pledges can be shared on social media.

"There are so many opportunities to be passive," said Smith, who describes herself as the author of the second act and the audience as the actors. "You can watch television or a play and say, 'Isn't this awful?' But we need a lot more right now. What we're doing in Berkeley is an outgrowth of what I did last year, when I found that people standing up at the mike and talking isn't productive."

"The facilitators are telling me that connections are starting to be made," she said. "That's what the goal is. I'll come out of this and maybe logistically design it a little differently. But just the fact that a friend of mine wrote to thank me for providing pads — how many people at intermission write something down they saw onstage? You talk to your friend, get a cup of coffee, go to the bathroom. Interrupting the evening like this asks you to have a different way of processing."

With Smith, a piece is never set until it is published. "Notes From the Field," which will no doubt change as it moves to other cities, is finding its structure. Not all of the monologues have the same potency, and the cogency of the work's overall argument would be enhanced by including a few more voices from the conservative end of the spectrum. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the production is nonetheless exceptionally moving. It left me in that state that Maxine Greene labeled "wide awakeness" — the ultimate aim of education and art in an ideal world.

When I asked Smith for her appraisal of Obama's presidency, she said something that applies equally well to her work as an artist, crediting him with helping to "frame our consciousness."

"Because he's a young president, this is just one step in a larger legacy of leadership," she said. "I think this is a great pulpit from which he has done certain things and announced other things. I think it's no small thing that starting with Trayvon Martin we've had this person in office who has given us a way of thinking about these issues. It really helped me, for example, to read his speech about Baltimore, because it basically said that if we think that fixing the police is going to fix this problem, we are in big trouble."

Smith said that she's trying to "paint a very large canvas" and knows that she can "do better" about including more divergent political views. But she did point out that the spokesperson in "Notes From the Field" for the "personal responsibility" position is a black student from West Baltimore who complains about the way boys from the neighborhood wear their jeans pulled down and hang out on the street corners all day.

She wants to provide audience members with multiple entry points "if for no other reason that it gives them a chance to say, 'Well, I'm not interested in economics, but I understand trauma because I'm 55 and I still haven't gotten over the way my father beat me.'"

The damaging effects of chronic stress on cognitive development is a crucial point of interdisciplinary discovery in the show, connecting poverty, violence, mental health, neuroscience and educational outcomes.

Linda Wayman, the principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia who figured in "Never Givin' Up," the show Smith performed this year at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, underscores just how important this new frontier of research is when she talks about the overlap between "special ed" and prison:

"I wound up with this school in the middle of North Philadelphia, with 38% of my students special ed. Special needs. Imagine we're in a high school where 38% of the students are special ed. And I think — now I don't know the numbers, but I believe that if you go into the prisons, I think 80, 85% are those special-need students. I'm talking 'bout the Pennsylvania State Penitentiaries. Eighty-five percent of the students are special ed. They never learned to read, honey. And the reason why they in jail, cause they gotta eat too. They gotta feed their families too."

Smith returned to something said by the chief judge of the Yurok Tribe — "If a child is suffering to the extent that they act out in school" — as an example of the kind of revolution in empathy that's needed right now.

"Just by starting the sentence in this way shows that it's not simply a bad child," she explained, simultaneously elucidating the compassionate power of her own art. "If you were from a middle-class background or a wealthy background, there would be all kinds of interventions being made. Those from more affluent backgrounds know how much they have had to do to get their kids through. Imagine when there's nobody there. What do we expect to be happening?"

Twitter: @CharlesMcNulty

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