By Alisa Solomon
When Anna Deavere Smith was awarded a National Humanities Medal in 2012 by President Obama, the citation lauded how “she has informed our understanding of social issues” by conveying “a range of disparate characters.” Through her sustained project “On the Road: A Search for American Character,” which she began in the early 1980s, Smith has indeed invented a unique and powerful form of documentary theater that shines light on pressing contemporary issues. Inspired by Smith’s groundbreaking artistry, Stanford Live’s series Live Context: Art + Ideas and the Office for Religious Life are presenting works that explore the role art can play in promoting social change.
Smith builds her plays by interviewing a diverse group of people who all have some stake in a particular event or issue, and then she culls rich monologues from what she calls the “organic poetry” in their expression. She performs these verbatim texts with complete fidelity to the rhythms and patterns of each person’s speech and gestures. As a result, through the medium of her body, onstage Smith brings into dialogue people who would otherwise never occupy the same space. A Lubavitcher housewife, a Nation of Islam minister, an Orthodox rabbi, and a young rapper, for instance, are just four of some 26 characters Smith personified in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, the 1992 work that dug into the heart of the violent clashes between that neighborhood’s Hasidic and Caribbean American communities and that catapulted Smith to international acclaim. With this same technique, Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 illuminated the causes and effects of the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating case. (The searing PBS version will be screened at Cubberley Auditorium on October 14, followed by a Q&A with Smith.) House Arrest examined the American presidency and its public image. Let Me Down Easy explored illness and mortality within the context of a broken health-care system.
Smith also performs (or directs other actors in) works made from archival texts she has selected that still speak to the current moment—to America’s persistent inequities and to its enduring promise—and that respond to the same concerns that animate her interview-based plays: racial and economic justice, American identity on individual and national scales, triumphs and failures of empathy, the struggles folks face and the ways they rise to meet them. (These are also the themes she will take up in a dialogue on compassion at Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education on October 7.) Rap on Race juxtaposed Mike Wallace’s 1959 interview of Lorraine Hansberry with James Baldwin’s legendary 1971 conversation with Margaret Mead. Smith’s recitation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—which she will present at Memorial Church on October 21—reanimates his defense of taking to the streets for the cause of justice as a rousing summons for right now.
The urgency of that text courses through Smith’s new work-in- progress, The Pipeline Project (at Bing Concert Hall on October 30), a kaleidoscopic look at the surge of humanity into America’s criminal justice system, especially school children and most especially children of color from impoverished communities, who are sent spiraling down the pipeline’s drain from an early age.
Smith decided to devote herself to the issue after she attended a meeting of social justice experts in New York City in 2011 and heard their tales of the extreme punishments meted out to children who misbehaved in school. The sorts of mischief that once would have landed kids in the principal’s or guidance counselor’s office were now landing them in the juvenile justice system, in the pipeline to prison. Smith heard stories of five-year-olds being handcuffed for throwing tantrums and teenagers arrested for minor pranks.
The statistics—in this, the Western country with the highest incarceration rate—are not only astonishing. They also reveal a web of predicaments entrenched in criminal justice practices, education policy, long-term poverty, and—as Stanford’s Victor Carrion, a character represented in the play, points out—the chronic stress of impoverishment and violence that hampers a child’s ability to function in a classroom. Here are just a few examples from the overwhelming data: In 2012–13, 190 children from kindergarten to third grade were suspended from California schools for the “crimes” of chewing gum in class, talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes. Seventy percent of students involved in “in-school arrests” or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. Being suspended in ninth grade doubles the likelihood that the student will not complete high school. Sixty-eight percent of all males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma. Seventy percent of inmates in California state prisons are former foster care youth. More black men are behind bars or within the criminal-justice system than were enslaved in 1850.
The connections among such data points became clear to Smith in deeply human terms as she interviewed teachers, principals, mentors, advocates, judges, inmates, students, and government officials in Stockton, Klamath, and Oakland in California and in Philadelphia, whom she now portrays in the play. Smith arrived in her hometown of Baltimore to conduct more interviews on the heels of the death of Freddie Gray, not even the latest name on the roster of African Americans who died this year in police custody—a number that topped 200 in the first eight months of 2015.
During that research process, Smith saw how the punitive aggression of policing in poor communities of color lines up with young people’s experience in the local schools. The populations disproportionately profiled, arrested, and met with violence by police—people of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty, or learning disabilities—are the same ones targeted by “zero tolerance” school discipline, policies intended to keep schools free of drugs and weapons by imposing severe punishments, like yearlong suspensions, for any infraction. Rather than improving school safety, these policies end up criminalizing all kinds of rule-breaking and disruptive activities that in more- affluent communities would be resolved with a good talking-to or, in severe cases, with therapy to help the child stabilize and succeed. In public schools in poor communities, however, as counselors and nurses have been eliminated because of budget cuts, discipline has been ceded to police officers stationed in school buildings through federal and local initiatives.
There’s an opening for change now that Smith hopes her play can help pry wider: Democrats and Republicans alike agree that mass incarceration has to be scaled back; schools and local legislatures are beginning to inch away from zero tolerance; and President Obama himself acknowledged, in his speech in Baltimore after the uproar over Freddie Gray’s death, how tightly the strands of poverty, violence, inadequate schooling, unemployment, and adversarial policing are woven together. More than with her previous plays, Smith has said she wants The Pipeline Project to “build a model for art to be in direct connection to advocacy.”
It’s an intricate model. Smith is not talking about agitprop or hectoring audiences with her own answers. On the contrary, she regards theater as a place to convene members of the public and raise their most vexing questions. But how, then, do theatergoers think about and perhaps take action in response to those questions? For all her virtuosity, Smith doesn’t count her work a success if all spectators say to one another after the play is, “That was so powerful. Wow. So where should we go for drinks?” She has long been consumed by an inquiry into what might happen after the houselights come up.
At her Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she created at Harvard University in 1997 (and which is now housed at New York University, where Smith is a professor), she recruited a “core audience,” committed to attending all the offerings in a summer season of works curated by Smith and developed at the institute and to participating in a variety of conversations spurred by this work. After her own plays, she has hosted panels of commentators or thrown open some microphones for a town-hall discussion. Most ambitiously, she cast the audience as the actors for the second act of the version of The Pipeline Project that she presented at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this past summer (accompanied by the bassist Marcus Shelby). After watching the 70-minute first act, small groups of audience members participated in discussions led by trained facilitators about issues the play sparked, and before returning to the auditorium to see Smith perform a coda, they were invited (though not obliged) to name one action they’d commit to taking. Many shared their promises on a Twitter feed looping on a screen in the theater: volunteer in a reading program, mentor some kids, press legislators on reform initiatives, among many others. Smith likes to say that she objects to the phrase “take away” when applied to a play; rather, she insists, audiences bring things. In this experiment, Smith made that notion concrete.
At Stanford, in conjunction with the Office for Religious Life a similar experiment will follow “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a text very much to the purpose as it lays out King’s case for the necessity of political action. It’s apt, too, for analogizing activism to theater in a way that speaks directly to Smith’s stirring art. Nonviolent direct action “seeks to so dramatize the issue,” King writes, “that it can no longer be ignored.”
Alisa Solomon is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the author most recently of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. She served as dramaturg on several projects by Anna Deavere Smith, including Let Me Down Easy and Notes from the Field/The Pipeline Project.