Monday, November 28, 2016

Making Meaning with Anna Deavere Smith

“Our children have been so reduced to the color of criminality they’re not even seen in their humanity as children.”  
-- Pastor Jamal-Harrison Bryant, on PBS NewsHour 9/29/15

If the past few weeks since November 8th and the surreal election aftermath have you feeling like you’d like to stay in bed under the covers, it’s time to get up, wake up, and get yourself to see Anna Deavere Smith. She is currently performing in what I consider to be her masterpiece of theater and social science research, Notes from the Field, which is playing through December 18th at Second Stage Theater in New York. Years in the making after hundreds of interviews conducted in cities from Stockton to Baltimore, and dedicated to Anna Young Smith 1924-2003 and Maxine Greene 1917-2014, this epic work begins with the wise words of Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and cousin of the late great PBS NewHour host Gwen Ifill. In an excerpt from an onstage interview between Ms. Smith and Ms. Ifill in Baltimore in 2015, Ms. Smith appears on stage as Ms. Ifill, explaining simply that you can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about education. Whereas in the past the country made massive investments in infrastructure, in building up the middle class, today we invest in the criminal justice system, taking money from other things that we, as a society, decided were more important investments. “That’s what we call policy,” she says, and just as that depressing reality sinks in, the stage transitions through giant video panels, to Lester Holt of NBC News recounting the news about Freddie Gray as we hear him holler in pain and see his broken body hauled away by officers.

It’s hard to watch and listen, but then Ms. Smith is captured on live video in a black sweatshirt with WE COPWATCH inscribed on the back as she transforms into Kevin Moore, armed with a digital camcorder and smartphone. He witnessed and filmed Freddie Gray’s treatment at the hands of officers who he said tossed him in a paddywagon, a “steel cage,” like a dead animal. Eye contact is a trigger, he warns, a “glance is all it takes, just a glance.” You can see video of Ms. Smith talking to Mr. Moore on Baltimore’s streets thanks to the PBS NewsHour, who did a segment on the work in progress in 2015 as part of a series on mass incarceration called Broken Justice. 

Next we see images of the protests as they become violent, and hear from Allen Bullock, who recounts being beaten repeatedly by police for running, because “they gonna do what they wanna do.” It’s not a racist thing, he says, it’s hate, and he matter-of-factly states that stuff happens every day in Baltimore city.

For a few moments the video of Freddie Gray’s open casket is played until we see Ms. Smith in a purple robe, transformed into the pastor who spoke at his funeral on April 27, 2015. In what feels like the play’s epicenter, we are brought together in church as the pastor calls out who is here with us, and asks us to clap in praise for all of them. He tells the story from Luke 7:11-15 when Jesus went to a town called Nain and encountered a widow weeping over the death of her only son. Pastor Bryant begins preaching about breaking the box, the stereotypes and racial profiling, that left Freddie Gray at the age of 25 with no opportunity, thinking “I’m tired of living in a box” caught in a trend now identified as a quarter life crisis. He returns to the story when Jesus tells her, “Don’t cry.” Freddie’s death is not in vain, he cries out, we must keep exposing corruption, redlining, gentrification, inadequate public schools, whatever box. “God, put your hand on the box,” he prays now with tremendous urgency, “get up. I neeeeeed you to get up, GET YOURSELF UP!” He reminds us that when that boy got out of the casket (and now the boy in the story of Luke and the boy of the funeral feel united as one) he cried, “NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE!” We chant this call and response together three times until we see the faces of the six officers on the screens, charges dropped or acquitted.

A lit corner of the stage is graced with Marcus Shelby and his stand up bass, who plays to Nikki Giovanni reciting Tupac’s poem The Rose That Grew from Concrete, as we are taken across the country to Stockton, California. Mayoral candidate Michael Tubbs comes to life through Ms. Smith as he recounts a visit to a first grade classroom where a page in a children’s book about Martin Luther King’s assassination leads to the shocking discovery that the six-year-old children before him know all too well about death by guns.

Lest you think that this play is just about the soaring rates of incarceration that have led to a taxpayer annual expense of $39 billion, Tubbs’ heartbreaking account of trauma inflicted on little children segues to Ms. Smith in fisherman’s orange overalls as Taos Proctor, a Yorok Tribal Reservation resident and former inmate, explaining he was regularly kicked out of schools and classrooms until at 19 he worked his way up to San Quintin. In jail he said you have to be the “baddest” and “just stab ‘em…just be a monster” to survive the ordeal. Next comes Judge Abinanti from the Yurok Tribal Court who explains the need for kindness, respect when asking, “Why are you doing this?” She is obviously frustrated at the public’s inability to understand that “No, I get mad at you, we need to be closer…you need allies.” This reminded me of something I tell my students learning to become teachers. Here, the misbehaving child is sent away from the group, a time out, to isolation. In Reggio Emilia’s exemplary early childhood schools, the wiggly, distractible child is scooped up, hugged tight and given the extra attention that such children crave. Abby Abinanti becomes more incensed as she speaks of the overmedication of foster kids. “All they do is jack these kids up on medicine. What kind of person does that? These are children!” She reminds us of the 14-year-old girl in a bathing suit in Texas assaulted by an officer caught on video as she screamed for her mother, which we watch on the video panel. Dejected that the law is meant to be about justice and fairness, but now is just about money and power, she declares, “I think the country is broken, I really do.”

Flickers of hope inside schools come along next, with a “verrrrry involved” Stockton parent who confesses to smelling her kids while they sleep to check if they’re up to no good, and a high school professional who explains how simply taking a student’s phone can quickly escalate to an arrest. A compassionate principal in Philadelphia, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, is introduced with her signature countdown transition to the next period, “6, 5, I love you, 4, 3, 2 and 1, thank you teachers, lock your doors.” Speaking of her own mother, who hollered when she crossed the stage at her college graduation to accept her degree, she recalls seeing a former student who came to tell her that she had just finished college. “And she was just the WORST!” Wayman recalls, “the WORST!” Nobody is out there to indicate which is the student you need to push, she warns, but if everybody could just say, “Just one kid – like that.” Maestro Shelby helps us join in her call – JUST ONE KID! – and hope that maybe it’d be a better world.

Shakara, the South Carolina high school student who declined to turn her phone over to the teacher, and was thrown in her desk to the ground by a police officer, has her story told by the classmate who captured the incident on video and by journalist Amanda Ripley. In a recent talkback broadcast live November 15th on Facebook, Ms. Ripley noted that she thought, "Now that it's on video, we can all agree that this is outrageous." Yet lots of people have made assumptions about Shakara and for now, she has decided to remain silent. Her classmate Niya does say that while they were in jail with adults and the video turned up on the news, “Everybody in jail was like Whaaaat?! He threw a little girl like that?” Niya explains that she even spoke up to her third grade teacher who picked a kid up out of his seat by his cheek. Told to mind her business, Niya is still indignant and says, “How can you? That’s something you need to make your business.”

I won’t give away the stories that unfold with carefully composed bass music in the second act, they simply have to be experienced so that they work their way into your consciousness, rattle your bones, and stir your heart. The artist who has given us a masterful taste of what she has learned on this journey summed it up best in the PBS NewsHour interview. “The only way it’s going to turn around, I think,” she said, “is by what I call this spark of moral imagination, a more empathic community. And that’s one thing that art can offer.”


  1. You captured the play beautifully and accurately.

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