Anna Deavere Smith Fights School-to-Prison Pipeline With New Play

Anna Deavere Smith portrays India Sledge, a student from West Baltimore, in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter." (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

Anna Deavere Smith is best known for her TV work on "Nurse Jackie" and "The West Wing," but she’s been making documentary theater for decades, about race and class.

Her latest play, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, tackles what social justice groups have dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline. That's what happens when black, brown and Native American children are suspended, expelled and even arrested way out of proportion to their numbers in the student population, putting them on a path to juvenile hall or prison.

Smith creates her shows by interviewing people who know the issues firsthand, nearly 150 for "Notes," and then embodying a dozen or more on stage, using quick changes in costume and voice.

For instance, Michael Tubbs, an African-American city councilman from Stockton, makes an appearance near the beginning of the play.

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"Whenever I talk to young people in Stockton," says Smith as Tubbs, "I always quote the Tupac (Shakur) poem about the rose that grew from concrete, where he talks about, 'Long live the rose that grew from  concrete when no one else cares.' "

A note of hope, tempered by another observation from Smith in her role as Tubbs.

"For a lot of men of color in Stockton, there’s almost this prevailing sense of nihilism. You have an undercaste of young people who just feel forgotten, neglected and just angry, and don’t know what to be angry at."

Among the other characters: Abby Abinanti, chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court, and Taos Proctor, a Yurok fisherman, who Abinanti helped rescue from the school-to-prison system.

The monologues, so vivid in Smith's impersonations, are underscored with musical backing from bassist, bandleader and composer Marcus Shelby.

Bassist Marcus Shelby composes music for and performs in Anna Deavere Smith’s "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter"
Bassist Marcus Shelby composes music for and performs in Anna Deavere Smith’s "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter" (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

In one transition between scenes, Shelby improvises on "Spanish Harlem," a old song that restates the theme of the Tupac poem:

"There is a rose in Spanish Harlem...

It's growing in the street
Right up through the concrete."

Shelby plays that song and a lot of blues throughout the play because, he says, the blues capture the pain of the human condition.

"It’s the dichotomy between tragedy and triumph," Shelby said. "All the ways we feel life: anger happiness, love, tension, release.

The play is highly personal for Smith, whose mother was a teacher at a school in a poor Baltimore neighborhood.

"So in my house," Smith said, "my mother would bring home these great big boys because she believed there was no such thing as a non-reader. So if someone was in her sixth-grade class, they weren’t leaving sixth grade until they learned to read."

Smith argues, during an interview in a break from rehearsal recently, and in her characters on stage, that these days teachers are taking an unfair share of the blame for funneling troubled students into the school-to-prison pipeline.

"Because it is a broader problem that is linked to poverty," Smith said, "and the question is how do we help people become productive citizens to their families, to their country and to their communities."

The play has a surprise built into its second act, even for audiences familiar with Smith’s discursive storytelling.

At intermission during a recent preview, 20 facilitators, some from the writing corps Youth Speaks, broke the audience up into groups of 30 or so for a brisk whiteboard exercise.

Poet Dahlak Brathwaite at the whiteboard during Anna Deveare Smith's "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter.”
Poet Dahlak Brathwaite at the whiteboard during Anna Deveare Smith's "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The California Chapter.” (Cy Musiker/KQED)

As audience members munched packets of cookies, the kind you might find in a schoolkid's lunchbox, poet Dahlak Brathwaite asked the audience to accept the challenge  implicit in Smith's play, "to be part of the effort to change (the school-to-prison pipeline)."

In the play, Smith portrays a conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in which Ifill calls for the U.S. to invest in education in the same way it invested in the U.S. highway system and the suburbs.

But audience members in our group were less ambitious. One man said, "To create the society I want to live in, I would be willing to pay higher taxes."

Another said, "I will vote."

Asked what she thought of the exercise, Sybil Cobbs of Oakland, part of another group, said, "I actually loved it. We’re changing our minds, and therefore everything will follow in terms of our actions."

But she added, "One young man in our group said, ‘What change can we make in three years?’ And it was heart-wrenching, that our young people feel so hopeless."

The Act Two discussions raise the question of whether theater, or any art form, can change society. One scholar notes that plays agitating for change are as old the anti-war plays of Aristophanes, and as American as the  Federal Theater Project of the Great Depression.

Smith herself bristled a bit when I asked the question.

"It’s so obvious," she said, "that art is a form of expression that gets beyond the official language. That complicates things. It has the opportunity to really draw more people in, and particularly in a place in their heart, where they might just make an adjustment about how they think about things.”

Smith will be trying to motivate people to change the school-to-prison pipeline through Aug. 2 at Berkeley Rep. Then she and Berkeley Rep are working on plans to take the show to Yurok country in Northern California, and to three cities on the East Coast.

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