TOPICS > Arts > Broken Justice

Anna Deavere Smith tackles school-to-prison pipeline on stage

September 29, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
For Anna Deavere Smith, actress and path-breaking performance artist, Baltimore is home. After the arrest and death of Freddie Gray, the city became a sadly appropriate setting for Smith to tackle her latest project: a one-woman show about the "school to prison pipeline," which funnels children who get into trouble at school into the criminal justice system. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new play inspired by today’s headlines touring the country, including a stop soon in Baltimore.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest report in our ongoing series on mass incarceration: Broken Justice.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education”: You put leg shackles on a man who could barely walk? And then throw him in the back of a paddy wagon like, oh, a dead animal, you know what I’m saying?

JEFFREY BROWN: A story on the stage taken from the streets of America today, the arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore earlier this year, as witnessed and videotaped by a bystander named Kevin Moore.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: And you feel the camera is the only weapon you have?

KEVIN MOORE, Baltimore: Yes, the camera is the only thing that we have to can actually protect us that’s not illegal.

JEFFREY BROWN: The storyteller is writer and actor Anna Deavere Smith, who wove Moore’s experience into her new project, titled “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education.”

The project began with an anecdote a friend told Smith about a young person in Baltimore who was arrested after urinating on a watercooler.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: She said, oh, whatever happened to mischief? And I was just like, wow, poor kids are pathologized. And rich kids have mischief. And it just grabbed me. And I thought, it’s time to go home, really, and go back to what I began with, and look and see what’s wrong with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Home is Baltimore, where Smith lived until she was 15.

After the killing of Freddie Gray and the riots that ensued, it was a sadly appropriate setting for Smith her return. Anna Deavere Smith is a recognizable presence on television, these days on the Showtime program “Nurse Jackie.”

But it’s her one-woman theater explorations of aspects of American life, from racial strife to health care, that have earned her honors and acclaim as a path-breaking American artist.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: There’s still something wrong with you. Maybe it’s because you speak Spanish.

Could you tell me what kind of cancer you have?


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I said, this is appalling.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith plays all the parts. But the words are those of people she’s interviewed, activists, scholars, politicians, average people affected by what’s going on.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: What I say now, after having done these interviews for many, many years, is that I’m looking for people who would scream it from a mountaintop, and I just happen to be walking by.

JEFFREY BROWN: The aim of this journalistic-style approach, she told me recently, is to — quote — “make sense of things.”

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: It is, in terms of looking for the story and looking for witnesses, the people who are in it, to have them explain something to you that you don’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: What Smith wants to understand now is what she and others call the school-to-prison pipeline, in which children, disproportionately African-American, Latino and Native American, get in trouble in school for relatively minor offenses and are then funneled into the criminal justice system, changing their lives forever.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: We have retreated into a kind of segregation. And some people would say it’s all part of this gap between the rich and the poor that many, many, many people are talking about, or the gap between the rich and the middle class, or just the failure of our public institutions.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the project, Smith and her team talked to hundreds of people in seven cities, including Baltimore, where we joined her for a day.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: The call for our men to get up. You even go to the sagging pants, right, which is controversial, some people say. What about that? What about the sagging pants? What does that mean? Why did you call for them to basically pull their pants up?

REV. JAMAL BRYANT, Empowerment Temple Church: When I say pull it up, it’s not just the pants, but pull up your level of thinking, or pull up the expectation for your own life.

JEFFREY BROWN: We watched as she interviewed Reverend Jamal Bryant, who delivered the eulogy at Freddie Gray’s funeral.

REV. JAMAL BRYANT: The reason why I want you not to cry is because Freddie’s death is not in vain.

JEFFREY BROWN: He told Smith of his opposition to a new $30 million jail for youth.

REV. JAMAL BRYANT: Our children have been so reduced to the color of criminality, that they are not even seen in their humanity as children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith recently presented an early version of “Notes From the Field” at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California, taking on the personas of some of those she’d interviewed around the country.

She became India Sledge, a student in West Baltimore.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: My boyfriend, Jake, was near — he was walking to the store. And the police jacked him up and threw him against the wall for no reason, checked him for no reason. And since that time, his momma’s like, I have got to get away from here, because, around this area, that’s all it is around here, is just drug dealers, drug dealers, drug dealers.

JEFFREY BROWN: As Stephanie Williams of Philadelphia, Smith gave a teacher’s view of chaos in the classroom.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I felt like I had a whole bunch of hungry, starving people, and I had nothing in my hands to give them, even though I tried to give them so much. But it was hard to be that strong day in and day out. It was just — it felt like — it was like running a jail without a gun. That’s what it was like.

And it’s like being in jail without a gun, no guns, no handcuffs, billy clubs. I can’t go use a club. I can’t do any of that. I got to just keep you in order just by being me.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Baltimore, of course, things were very personal for Smith.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I’m just glad it’s not boarded up. It’s different. You know, it’s different.

JEFFREY BROWN: As she visited her childhood neighborhood on the city’s West Side. A former neighbor, Sheila Wiggins, who taught Smith how to dance the twist, was stunned to see her.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Oh my goodness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Smith showed us the cemetery behind her house where she and friends would play and pick berries.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: We played in this alley, hopscotch.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, she sees enormous problems in her hometown, but also something more.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: The young people in particular who I’m talking to really show great vulnerability. They are not masked with language or jargon. And I’m very moved by that. There’s a kind of grace here in Baltimore that I miss.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this project, Smith says, she wants to take a more activist approach than in the past, pushing local communities to engage and look for solutions.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: Right now, people are just falling off the radar. They are just dying. Or how can that continue? And the only way it’s going to turn around, I think, is by what I call this spark of a moral imagination, of a more empathic community.

And that’s one thing art can offer. I can ask people to feel about this, until enough people say — in their community, they say, well, we have got to get this together, we have got to turn this around.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anna Deavere Smith will perform “Notes From the Field” in California and Oregon this fall, before bringing it to Baltimore in early December.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I said, just one, Jesus, just one. I’m not trying to do the masses. I’m just trying to save one at a time.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Baltimore, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.