She hadn’t intended to be back here and doing this, at least not now.
Anna Deavere Smith — who arguably invented or changed forever the concept of first-person, multicharacter theater — did not set out to be in previews of her solo show about the school-to-prison pipeline called “Notes From the Field.” It took her five years — and some painful cultural shifts — to change her mind.
“But here I am, up on the stage, doing my thing in this particular year,” she says in a recent phone interview, not sounding a bit regretful about either the topic or the timing.
That thing, as she puts it, burst into national consciousness with “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities,” a kind of theatrical journalism based on interviews conducted after a black child was run over by a Hasid’s car in 1991, a Jewish scholar was killed in revenge and the neighborhood exploded. Next came “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” about the unrest after the Rodney King beating that burned through 13 neighborhoods.
The latest piece opens Nov. 2 at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage, the same theater where her last New York play, “Let Me Down Easy,” ran in 2009. That one was a perception-shattering solo excavation of the health care system and, well, death and, like her previous work, embodied different points of view with a “Rashomon” combination of empathy, curiosity and contradictory truths. She once said the goal was “to put a tough topic in a jewel box.” And so she has.
The new work had a subtitle when it ran recently at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then it was called “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” According to Carole Rothman, artistic director and co-founder of Second Stage, the piece broadened its lens over the developmental years: “It isn’t just about education anymore.”
For Smith, the connections between the education system and the prison system became blazingly clear about five years ago, when she was invited to listen to 15 people from around the country talk about their work with kids, school and incarceration. “I heard many disturbing stories,” she says, but, among her many other obligations, she was still busy with the tour of “Let Me Down Easy.” A few years later, she was asked to design a project on the same topic, not for the theater but to “engender conversation.” She interviewed more than 250 people, but “I couldn’t do it full time because ‘Nurse Jackie’ [the Showtime series starring Edie Falco in which Smith played a strict ER administrator] was still running.”
She put the research into a workshop at Berkeley Rep, meant not as a show but for stage readings and town halls.
“But then came Ferguson.”
That is, then came the 2014 death of Michael Brown and the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. And then came Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in Baltimore, Smith’s hometown. She took the term off at NYU, where she is a professor in the Department of Art and Public Policy, and got back onstage.
“There is a growing awareness that mass incarceration has increased exponentially,” she says with sadness and the passion that, somehow, never sounds didactic when she says it. “There’s a growing gap between who gets to go to school and be taken care of since they were 2, and the children I have learned about in this project. It’s not just about race, but about the inequity in the opportunity to have a life of wonder and joy.”
Years ago, I had the rare experience of traveling with Smith for some interviews she conducted for “Twilight: L.A.” I remember that, at the start of each meeting, she would calmly explain, “I try not to take sides. I try not to give answers, but maybe I can open up perceptions.”
She told me about questions she’d ask that would get someone to “break his own syntax, change the look on his face. How a person speaks, not what he says, is where character is.” Those questions include “Have you ever come close to death? Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do? Do you remember your first day of school? Did anyone ever talk to you about the circumstances of your birth?”
With this new piece, she also has a more specific underlying question. “I’m trying to make a call to the audience to support what I feel may be a new civil rights movement that has to concern both mass incarceration and education.” Then she adds thoughtfully, “The first civil rights movement was about segregation of schools. There is de facto segregation around the country.”
Rothman says, “It’s exciting to do a piece like this and watch the audience. It’s so young, so diverse. If I say ‘social justice is the theme,’ nobody would want to go. But this is such a visceral piece. … I really hope it spurs conversation.”
Much has changed since the creation of “Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights,” besides the gentrification of the community. In those days, Smith was alone with just a tape recorder. By the time I tagged along in L.A., she also had a photographer and a field staff of support from the Mark Taper Forum, which had commissioned the piece. She asks now what would have happened if someone had not caught the Rodney King beating on video.
“Now people walk around with cellphones,” she marvels, “almost as if they are protective weapons. Technology is making us see this dark reality.”
Over the decades, her work has been under the umbrella title “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” though she adds she never could have anticipated the character of this election. “It’s such a peculiar moment,” she says with both playful understatement and serious incredulity. “I couldn’t have made it up.” Of course, making up things is not what she does.