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In Her New One-Act Play, Anna Deavere Smith Plumbs The 'School-To-Prison' Pipeline

July 26, 2016

While no one on the campaign trail has yet to take on education and our incarceration crisis in a substantive way, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has. 

Her new one-woman show is Notes from The Field: Doing Time in Education, which lays out how a civil rights crisis is erupting at the intersection of our education system and mass incarceration problem. Smith joined Boston Public Radio to discuss the new show and her unique approach to storytelling.

Highlights include:

On the school-to-prison pipeline:

"The Department of Justice, some years ago, came out with statistics that reveal that black, brown, Native American children from poor communities are punished more harshly than their brothers and sisters of other social classes. They’re suspended from school and expelled from school at higher rates, and these suspensions and expulsions are a very good prediction that they will end up in the criminal justice system as adults. And, on the way, they’ll be in the juvenile justice system." 

My grandfather—who had an 8th-grade education—said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you…I think, in a way, trying to heal the crisis of having to grow up in a de facto segregated city, I decided to try to become America, word for word.

On her unique approach to bringing politics and social issues to the stage:

"I interview people, and then I make these one-person shows where I perform all the parts of the people I interviewed. When I was a girl growing up in Baltimore, my grandfather—who had an 8th-grade education—said that if you say a word often enough, it becomes you...I think, in a way, trying to heal the crisis of having to grow up in a de facto segregated city, I decided to try to become America, word for word. I’ve been going around for a long time now, since the late '70s, working on an oeuvre called "On the Road: A Search for American Character," where I’ve interviewed lots and lots of people usually about subjects where there’s more than one point of view."  

On the conversations she hopes to kickstart with her play:

"In this play, I created it in such a way that I play what’s a traditional first act [with] several characters. Then, we’re going to set the audience off in small groups to talk among themselves for twenty minutes about this matter, and then come back, and I do a coda. Hopefully, when I come back, they’re looking at it from a different point of view. Look: my idea is, all I can do is do my research, try to write a decent play—if I’m lucky, make you laugh and cry. But there are people in the audience that can do a lot more than me in their city, and there’s a place where stuff can happen, I believe." 

Notes from The Field: Doing Time in Education will be onstage at the ART in Cambridge from August 20th through September 17th. Smith is an actress and playwright, and—among her numerous honors—she received the 2012 National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. To hear more from her, tune in to Boston Public Radio above.


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