Anna Deavere Smith brings school-to-prison pipeline play to Philadelphia

The playwright and actress wants audiences to think of solutions. She embeds discussion into the drama.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith brought her project on the school-to-prison pipeline to Philadelphia on Monday night, trying out her “work in progress” before an audience that included many of the city’s educators and activists.

Like her other one-woman shows, Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education is based on extensive interviews, which she delivers verbatim, assuming the postures and speech patterns of the subjects. For this production at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, conceived with the help of the Philadelphia Theatre Company, she interviewed more than 100 people in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Oakland, and other cities.

Dressed in plain black pants and a gray shirt, with a nondescript hairstyle, Smith embodied more than a dozen characters and shifted seamlessly from person to person. This is what Smith is a genius at.

One minute she delivered a piercing analysis of the nation’s priorities as the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Shortly after, she verbalized the rage of a Baltimore protester, seen on video bashing in a car windshield after Freddie Gray was killed in police custody.

There was the intensely emotional regret of a judge sentencing a young man to prison (“The system has failed you”), while the picture of his sweet face as a child flashed on the screen – and then the tattooed face of the 18-year-old. The harrowing story of an emotional support teacher at Huey Elementary School and the child she grabbed and hugged as he ran screaming through the halls.

Facts and figures get thrown in, like the 36 percent of students at Strawberry Mansion High in Philadelphia who have been labeled special education. As Linda Cliatt-Wayman, the school’s principal, Smith tells how her mother rode the bus with her and her siblings to the suburbs every Sunday so they could see that not everyone lived in poverty and what was possible with a college education. And how her mother did a happy dance when she received her degree, notwithstanding admonitions to “hold your applause.”

An Oakland activist describes reading a book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to 1st graders, hesitant when he gets to the assassination, reluctant to expose them to death. But one by one, each of them says “My brother got shot,” or "my cousin," or "my uncle"– every one of them knew somebody who died a violent death.

Smith shifts among people on the front lines, public officials, and academics, and concludes by channeling James Baldwin. With cigarette and drink in hand, she delivers a piece of wisdom from the 1970 book A Rap on Race, a compilation of conversations he had with the anthropologist Margaret Mead.

Smith, as Baldwin, concludes: “What shall we do about the children? We are responsible for them.”

The variety of characters and settings offers a rich tapestry and gives the audience a visceral and multilayered sense of the depth of the problem – it is embedded in our culture, educational system, discipline policies, courts, cities, our history of racism.

For solutions, though, in a bold step, she asks the audience to weigh in. As it says in the program: “I see the theater as a convening space, where you, for the most part strangers to one another, can come together to exchange ideas, suggest solutions, and possibly when I’m gone, mobilize around what should be done.”

So what she calls Act II is a discussion. Audience members were asked to write an answer to a question, “What would you do to help more youth succeed in school and avoid incarceration?” Answers were compiled and a theme determined for a panel and audience discussion moderated by Harris Sokoloff of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement.

The theme that dominated: more mentoring, an idea that seemed very small given the magnitude of the wrenching problem just dramatized so vividly.

While not downplaying the importance of needing engaged mentors of all kinds in the community, panelist and City Councilwoman Helen Gym and some members of the audience pushed hard for more serious consideration of changing the system – and listening to the youth themselves.

“I know that the instinct is to go to what I can do as an individual, but we need systemic change,” said Gym.

Some tweets from the event:

Smith has done similar shows on the Los Angeles race riots and health care, among other social issues. As an actress, she has appeared in such TV shows and movies as The West Wing, Blackish, Madam Secretary, and Philadelphia.

She said during the program: “Theater has the opportunity to really draw more people in, and, particularly, to a place in their heart where they might just make an adjustment about how they think about things.”