Chatting With Anna Deavere Smith

Playwright, actor, and educator Anna Deavere Smith isn't volunteering to be a modern day Atlas. After hoisting the world of America's school-to-prison pipeline onto her shoulders during a two-and-a-half-year play development, Smith cleaves the unwieldy orb into two halves like a piece of oversized fruit.

Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education — The California Chapter is the two-act, one-performer, me-then-you production coming to Berkeley Rep on July 11. Act 1 has the award-winning actor embodying a cast of characters drawn from over 150 interviews Smith conducted to illustrate how the criminal justice system disproportionately thrusts African-American, Latino, and Native American youth straight out of middle and high school classrooms and into juvenile detention centers and prisons. After Smith strides through approximately 60 minutes of portrayals, from elegant to ugly to anguishing, Act 2 places the audience center stage — and spread in small groups all over the theater in the hope that discussions will continue long after the curtain falls.

Smith is the recipient of a MacArthur Award, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, two Tony nominations and two Obies, among other honors. This isn't the first time she's used her uncanny ability to inhabit multiple characters within a documentary-style theater piece to provoke audience engagement. Her Twilight: Los Angeles (1992) addressed racial tensions after the Rodney King verdict, and Let Me Down Easy (2009), explored the frailty of the human body and the American health care system.

Although Notes began with interviews and town halls concentrated on the over-incarceration of black and brown kids, Smith says the play's lens widened during the last year.

“A lot has happened that tells us we can't just think about schools. We have to think about the larger canvas,” she says. “All of my works require that large canvas. I'm trying to understand the problem from multiple perspectives.”

Having spoken with students, teachers, parents, psychologists, school administrators, community activists, members of law enforcement, and leaders in the juvenile justice movement, Smith mentions the undeniable impact of black men killed in recent years by white men or white police officers: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and, sadly, others. “I'm hoping this version of the play is a call to action. We're moving into an important election year. I hope people will think differently as they head to the ballot box,” she says.

Last year, at town halls in Baltimore and Philadelphia, plus Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Rep's Osher Studio, audiences participated in small group discussions after the staged reading, giving people an opportunity to share their thoughts publicly.

“For the staged production, we've really thought about how we can cause substantive conversations instead of people just standing up and pontificating,” Smith says.

Working with director Leah C. Gardiner, Smith says the first act has gained relevancy. “I work with her because she's talented. She's younger — she comes to it with a different experience than people my own age. She studied [my earlier works] in school. My peers watched from a parallel perspective.”

Gardiner is also the parent of a 9-year-old black son for whom these matters are especially pertinent, Smith adds. “Every story requires different kinds of intelligence to understand it. It all comes together in this play in a brief amount of time.”

A “playbill” designed by project manager Sarah McArthur as more than the standard who's who will serve as a kind of audience tool kit. Touch-points for second act conversations, lists of local organizations involved with juvenile justice, and requests for post-show ideas to be sent to a project website offer audiences extended participation.

“In the intermission, the audience has no voice,” Smith says. “But in the randomly put together groups that make the second act, two molecules can collide and create relationships. People may come away with an email or an address and follow up.”

Smith says people have witnessed what's happening in the world and are poised to talk about the subject: “Audiences are more focused on young black males than they've been in a long while. Everything from Ferguson to now, audiences see what happened. They see Jon Stewart put jokes aside, they hear Obama's speech after what happened in South Carolina. The audience coming to this show is shifting already. Their filter is the most interesting to me. They're more connected to what's going on. People ask me what the takeaway is. There's not a takeaway, it's a mix of what they bring and what I give.”

Bay Area bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby has been a part of the project from its inception. At last year's town halls, Shelby and saxophonist Andrés Soto appeared with Smith. For the stage production, Shelby alone will join Smith as a sonic counterpoint, partner, elaborator — a kind of co-captain whose music Smith says heightens the drama or stitches together the patchwork of characters she portrays.

Smith says Shelby has been inspirational.

“Being a one-person show for so long, it's good to have another artist on stage with me,” she says. “Music is in the language of the people I interviewed.”

“It's all original music,” Shelby says. “Working with Anna has pushed me musically, but the subject material is something I understand.”

Smith and Shelby agree that the problems facing America's racially and economically divided society aren't solvable through a simple application of art. Nevertheless, they insist the need for Notes — for frank conversations — is undeniable.

“I'm humble about what art can do,” Smith says. “We can convene people. We can raise awareness. Can we change the world? No. Listen, I'm not going to teach kindergarten or go do art in a penitentiary, I do what I do best. But I hope it will cause people who do work in those environments to do good work.”

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