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Anna Deavere Smith’s Life Goal: ‘Become America, Word For Word’

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Anna Deavere Smith

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote and stars in the HBO special ‘Notes From The Field,’ which examines America’s so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Smith portrays all 18 characters.

Scott McDermott

Anna Deavere Smith might be best known for her acting roles on NBC’s The West Wing and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie

But she’s also one of the most prolific playwrights of “documentary-style theater,” where she uses verbatim interviews as source material in hopes of pushing her audience toward “an adjustment in the way that they think.” 

“I’ve been looking at what you could call American problems for a long time, using this technique of learning what I can — not just from what people tell me, but how they tell me — about the world in which they live,” Smith said on Nerdette.

Her latest work is a one-woman show called Notes From The Field, which was recently released on HBO. It examines how minority students living in poverty often end up incarcerated. 

To make Notes From The Field, Smith interviewed 250 people so she could accurately portray a wide range of people, like inmates and educators, who are affected by this school-to-prison pipeline. 

Smith told Nerdette co-host Tricia Bobeda about how she made Notes From The Field and what she hopes it will achieve. Below are highlights from the conversation.

What she hopes to accomplish by showing a ‘variety of truths’

Anna Deavere Smith: I think that these human stories, these human witnesses, leave room for you, as the other human or the other viewer who may or may not be a policymaker, to understand on some level that you, too, have a story. You, too, have a truth. And I’m weaving together a variety of truths, and if I’ve worked well without seeming to have passed too much judgment, that it also could make you feel as though you maybe move an inch to the side of where you thought you understood what you believed.

[Hopefully] I’m able to keep the attention of the audience long enough that they have some type of an adjustment in the way that they think. In real success, they are engrossed in this fabric well enough that they actually want to do something about the school to prison pipeline, which is different than, I think, a traditional entertainment.

How she decides which interviews to use in a play

Smith: It’s not just a person who can give me facts or perceived truths. It’s a person who has a very unique way of talking and speaking. The simple way to put it is I’m looking for a person to change their vocal and speech patterns over the course of the hour that I talk to them. 

It’s very different than if I were going to quote somebody in a newspaper article or even than if I were making a documentary film and I were going to use that person speaking. 

What I have to do is take that language and breathe life and emotion into it. So it doesn’t even mean that if a person breaks down crying or laughs, it’s not even that. I believe that if the rhythm of what they’re saying has enough space in it, then I can really breathe the human breath and life that I need in it when I’m onstage. 

Homework from Anna Deavere Smith: Map your proximity to prisons and poverty

Smith: Make a map of where you live and what you do. Where do you go everyday on your map? And in what proximity is your map either to a prison or a very poor neighborhood? And I think in Chicago that is a doable exercise. Because I believe that one way out of what we’re in right now is proximity. Try to make yourself proximate to the matter if you want to work on a better America. 

I have a friend who’s an attractive white male who has been going out to Rikers Island to visit a young man in his early 20s who is there charged with murder. And my friend Brian tells me that when he goes out there twice a month, he is the only white person to be seen anywhere — on the bus, inside the visiting area — and he talked about coming back one day and this very colorful black woman, who obviously had been many times to visit a variety of people. He got on the bus to go home and she said, “You, you, you. Come sit by me.” 

And I think that ought to be our objective. Go sit by somebody. Go walk with somebody.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation, which was produced and adapted for the web by Justin Bull.

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