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Anna Deavere Smith Tackles the American Education System in ‘Notes From the Field’

Actress, playwright, and activist Anna Deavere Smith portrays 18 real life people in HBO’s presentation of her play, Notes From the Field.

There aren’t very many people that would take on the broken American education system, but playwright Anna Deavere Smith clearly has no fear when it comes to ambitious projects. After collecting over 250 hours of interview footage, Deavere Smith transforms herself onstage into over a dozen people of different genders, ages, and races to recount experiences that ultimately shows how the education system in this country is failing minority youth.

After you realize how much work she put into collecting data, you can’t turn your eyes away from the staggering physical work Deavere Smith does on stage. At the beginning of the film, Deavere Smith speaks as Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president, and then shifts to portray Kevin Moore, a young man who videoed the Freddie Gray beating. Later she speaks the words of Bree Newsome, the activist who scaled a flagpole in to remove a Confederate Flag in South Carolina. As she shifts from person to person, she changes her body language, her stance, her voice and speech. It’s a towering performance.

The most important take away from Notes From the Field is that there is still more work to be done. The American education system isn’t going to fix itself, and we need people like Anna Deavere Smith to illuminate the way.

I read that you have a lot of people in your life that are in teaching. Is Notes From the Field a personal project for you?

It was because I was dedicating it to my mother and all the people who were great teachers. I grew up in a time when education really was the antidote to inequality and racism. And everybody believed that schools were going to change it—that’s why there was all that effort to make Brown vs. Board of Ed and try to make schools that weren’t segregated. And, unfortunately, that didn’t work out so well. When I grew up everybody believed in it. We have a lot of faith in education to humanize us all. That’s what I came from really. All my father’s sisters were teachers and most of my mother’s sisters were teachers—except for one. Even my grandmother taught Sunday school.

You did Twilight LA 1992, another one woman show where you compiled interviews from real life people. Why use that format again for Notes From the Field? Do you find that it works best for a large topic? 

I don’t know if it works best for the subject but that’s the format of theater I developed and have been honing for most of my career. Television and movies are my day job and I’m a teacher at NYU—I’m very lucky to work there and teach very talented people in the graduated school at Tisch. I’ve written 18 plays using this technique of interviewing people. It’s about a complex problem and render it simply but at the same time have multiple voices and multiple points of view and try to show the problem in a different light. It’s making art out of a journalistic form.

Can you tell me about the energy from the audience when you performed it in New York?

I’ve had the opportunity to play it in New York and make a movie of it for HBO and watch how audiences in that realm and how they respond to it. In my case, it’s a lot of energy to deliver it and remember all those lines. When it’s over, I go back up to my dressing room and take a breath and go out and meet guests. What I find is that people are really moved by what they saw.

(Photo: HBO)

The way you switch between characters is both so seamless and so specific. Can you describe what it’s like to switch from one character to another?

It’s technical and many actors switch between characters. They just do it between jobs, and that’s how I taught myself how to do this over time. I was interested in a form that would be really fragmented to the story where nobody has the whole story. I spoke with the late Johnny Cochran about my play Twilight because, interestingly enough, he defended Reginald Denny who was a white truck driver who was pulled out of his truck in South Central and beaten very badly. When I talked to Johnny, he said something I will never forget. He said “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.” So I would never dare say that I find the truth, but I want to show there are many shades to any story. It’s not just one color.

How long did it take to conduct all the interviews?

For this play, I did 250 interviews in four American geographic areas, and I also went to Finland. People always told me that Finland had the best education system in the world. I think it goes back between Finland and Singapore. I was doing other things when I was collecting the interviews. I was doing Nurse Jackie while I was doing that, but we only shot from August to December usually. So I was able to do the interviews in the summertime. Throughout the time of collecting interviews for this play, I did other stuff I was doing. I started out by going into the field in 2013 and by 2014 I had one workshop production of it. In 2015, I had another, and by the summer of 2016 I was involved with the play that would eventually go to New York. It came together in bits and pieces starting as far back as 2012 when I got the first got the idea and raised the money. It took four years to get to New York. Off and on and doing lots of other projects in between.

How do you feel bringing this to a larger audience with HBO given the current education administration in the White House?

That’s a very, very good question. Of course, I started this project with a different type of leadership in America. In fact, the expression ‘school to prison pipeline’ really became famous in the Obama administration and it was in his administration that the United States Department of Justice released data that showed that black, brown and Native American poor children were disciplined more harshly than middle class kids. The number of times that they were suspended or expelled pretty much predicted they would have lives in prison, and, of course, that cycle goes on and on and on.

You know just from the activity of famous people like John Legend and Ava DuVernay that in that period of time the seed was planted for many Americans on both sides of the aisle to say mass incarceration is out of whack. We’re just putting too many people in prison and it’s too expensive. Your question is excellent with a different type of Secretary of Education than Arnie Duncan. I went to Chicago to do a screening of the HBO movie for Arnie and some of his colleagues. And Duncan, former Secretary of Education, is working with gangs right now. And I don’t think the current Secretary of Education would finish her tenure and start working with gangs, right?

(Photo: HBO)

Umm…no. I don’t think so.

No, I don’t think so either. My play doesn’t really deal with it, but there’s a whole other play you could write about the ways in which immigration policies cross with this and what happens with immigrant kids in the criminal justice system. It’s a very different environment. The problem with American education—the lack of equity—frankly goes back to Thomas Jefferson. Certainly in my lifetime, it’s always been there, chomping at the bit to ruin lives. America idea of everyone gets a chance is an idea that doesn’t go away in a different kind of administration. The audiences I’ve had a chance to connect with (or if they come up to me on the street or the airport and say how much this means to them) means something to me. And it makes me evermore grateful that Richard Plepler and Len Amato and the powers that be at HBO—who all came to see the stage show in New York—thought that everybody in America needs to see this. And they used their power and their resources at HBO to make this happen. The original plan was have Jonathan Demme direct it and as you know, regrettably, we lost him. His whole team got behind this and thought this was part of Jonathan’s legacy. I’m very moved that they got behind it and made me feel that they were really looking at this problem in America. And we need to do something about it.

I would hope that they would push to show Notes From the Field in schools the same way that 13th made an impact in schools. 

First, I think kids who have privileges need to understand the ever broader view of America, because they are going to be leaders. That’s how I feel about the kids I teach. I constantly tell them that through the arts, my goal is to give you the tools you need to express yourself in a way that you can provide leadership for others. Kids who do have privileges are going to be leading something. The company or if they are just going to get married and have children they’re going to be raising kids who could have influence. These people need to see it, and the kids who don’t have anything need to see it.

I’ll tell you a story of when I performed a workshop of this play in Baltimore. It was a site for research. We went there right after Freddie Gray died in police custody and there were riots. That’s my hometown, and we were always going to go there—it was just a coincidence that we ended up there at that moment. When we did this workshop production, one of the people who worked with me brought one of Freddie Gray’s best friends to the play. He saw this play and just cried and cried and could not be consoled, and he had never seen a play before. He said to a person who worked with us, “This is the first time I was able to grieve the death of my friend.” We were able to bring in high school students in to the production in New York, and I was surprised that a middle school principal in New York wanted kids from his school to see it. So the PTA bought out half a house. People understand why it’s important to expose young people to the issue. It’s really an American story. They can read great books about this and journalism in this country on this subject is very good. It’s different to see a play. To be perfectly trite about it, art opens minds and hearts. We want to evoke their empathic imagination and evoke their compassion.

I’ll be perfectly trite with you. I have a background in theater, and I was always taught that theater is the most progressive art form. Seeing something on stage can really change something in you, because it’s something real that you can see right in front of you. So I understand where you’re coming from there.

Not to switch gears, but you joined a Shonda Rhimes show this season with For the People. And, of course, you’re Bow’s mom on black-ish.

That’s right.

How’s that experience been?

Shonda came to see Notes on the Field with Tony Goldwyn and some other people from Scandal. It meant a lot to me that it spoke to Shonda. She expressed an interest in working with me, and when the part of Tina Krissman came along, I leapt at it. I love being in Shondaland. It’s a lot of talented people, and I also love it because it’s run so well. I think how you run stuff is an art form within itself. There hasn’t been an African American woman of letters in history who has had that influence and power. I feel privileged to being in Shondaland. And I love being on black-ish.

How can you not? It’s one of the best shows out there.

What I love about black-ish is that they’re really funny in real life. Everything that comes out of Jenifer Lewis’ mouth is hysterical. It really does feel like family there, and I am really observant in how things work. What I love about that crew is that everyone is happy to be there. It’s the same in Shondaland. People aren’t just phoning it in. People aren’t taking it for granted. I think people know what they’ve got. I don’t get to go there very often—maybe twice a year—but I cherish every time they ask me to come back.

Notes From the Field is available now on HBO.