By Noemi Berkowitz ('16, Theater and Performance Studies; Psychology)
At the end of October, I assisted director Leah Gardiner on Anna Deavere Smith’s Pipeline Project. In this one-woman show, Anna embodies 19 different characters, mainly people whom she interviewed about the school-to-prison pipeline recently.
From teachers to students to inmates, she tells the distinct story of each: Allen Bullock, a protestor arrested in Baltimore for rioting after the murder of Freddie Gray. Arnold Perkins, mentor, and Leticia DeSantiago, mother, who both have strong opinions on baggy pants. Judge Daniel Anders, who cried when he sentenced a boy, someone who he believed the system had failed.
As we hear their stories, The Pipeline Project paints a picture of how our education and incarceration systems are inextricably intertwined in the lives of families, educators, and administrators. We see how disproportionately they punish people of color, something that remains true before and after the performance.
What struck me most about working on The Pipeline Project was how immediate it felt. It was during our rehearsal process that the video of a police officer flipping and dragging a black girl in a classroom at Spring Valley High School went viral. Since, we’ve seen protests at Yale University and the University of Missouri about systemically racist incidents on our campuses. Anna has made an artistic career of creating conversations around social justice through theater, and in our current climate, this work feels vital. It doesn’t ask for a suspension of belief, as much theater does, but rather a belief in—and an engagement with—hard truths.
The author with Anna Deavere Smith in 2014
It was inspiring to work on this piece in a rehearsal room with so many accomplished and talented women. Anna Deavere Smith, of course, has been nominated for many awards for her one-woman shows, recently winning the National Humanities Medal and giving the 2015 Jefferson Lecture. Julie Baldauff, the stage manager, just finished working on the Tony Award–winning Pippin revival, one of her many Broadway credits.
And Leah Gardiner, the director, who has won an Obie Award and worked in New York and across the nation at regional theaters, showed me so much about strong direction and leadership in a rehearsal room. We only had nine days, in which she focused on bringing all the details and elements—lights and set transitions and more—together to tell a coherent dramaturgical story. Her strength of vision and creativity propelled this amazing work to the meaningful performance it was at Bing Concert Hall.
We talk about using theater to create empathy, reflect society, comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comforted… The phrases are seemingly endless. The Pipeline Project is one of those shows that actually address some of the most serious matters affecting our society today. I’m grateful to have gotten to work on this show with incredibly talented theater artists who use their work to talk about important issues. I’ll carry this experience with me as I strive to imbue my future work with these qualities.