Anna Deavere Smith talks to Adam May

The actor and author of critically acclaimed one-woman plays discusses the inspiration behind her art

Adam May: Your work outside of mainstream television tackles some of the biggest social issues facing our country right now. I'm wondering how you're influenced by your own childhood, growing up in Baltimore in the time of segregation.

Anna Deavere Smith: Well, I guess two things about that. One, when I was a girl, my grandfather said, "If you say a word often enough, it becomes you." So I took that and applied it to some things I was learning in the conservatory when I studied acting. And I had this goal to become America word for word. The idea of re-enacting Americans in particular people unlike me, with trying to learn as much as I could about America by putting myself in their words the way you think about putting yourself in another person's shoes.

But if we're going to get all psychological and heavy about it, we would say that it came from really the crisis of growing up in segregation where you're told, "You can't go there, and you can't go there."

What was it like? To be there growing up in that time?

Well … it was de facto segregation. But, you know, even inside of the black community, there were all these lines. Lines about class, lines about color. You know, we're different colors. My brother had blue eyes, and my brother's coloring was a lot like yours, my late brother, Deavere Smith.

And so I didn't like that idea, that "you can't go here, you can't go there." And then I had a great opportunity to go to Western High School — was a public school. Baltimore was also very anti-Semitic, so sort of the word on the street was if you want your kids to have a good education, go wherever the Jewish kids are going. And so it was at Western, going to school with white girls — some Jewish and some not — I saw that, wow, white people don't get along. Because the anti-Semitism was so extraordinary.

What do you make of your hometown right now? Baltimore is facing big challenges. Generational poverty in some neighborhoods, extreme unemployment, a prison pipeline that seems never ending. How did it get to that point

It’s a tragedy. That's the only thing I can tell you about it. And fortunately for me, I had sort of planned to have Baltimore be in my new play about kids who can't get through school and end up in the criminal justice system.

And I actually saw the play itself as sort of coming home. Then by some odd chance, coincidence, it turned out that when I was going home to do my research in Baltimore, just about education, it was right on the heels of the riot that happened after the death of Freddie Gray.

So what I see is a city that is bombed out. I see youth who are in despair. I went to a funeral of a 22-year-old had been shot. I think the numbers are something like 273 —

Closing on 300 for the year. It will be a record year in homicides.

It'll be a record year of homicides. So as a dramatist, you know, sadly, I am interested in catastrophe. And this catastrophe really hits home because it was where I grew up.


‘It’ll be a record year of homicides [in Baltimore]. As a dramatist, you know, sadly, I am interested in catastrophe. And this catastrophe really hits home because it was where I grew up.’

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith with Adam May

What was is it like for you to sit and see the effects of the violence firsthand? 

It seems to me to be almost like a kind of a performance now, these funerals. The whole community's packed in. Mothers crying, has to be taken out. You see the females, I guess the females of the guy who died, all dressed up. Working people lined up against the wall. A person preaching, asking, you know, praying, "Help our youth."

And then I wonder, why aren't these more cathartic? Why don't they make a difference? They don't seem to make a difference. I came out of that funeral, and there was another funeral going down the street. And I said to a woman … standing on the street, I said, "Well, whose funeral is that?" Said, "Oh, that's probably the child — you hear about the 7-year-old child was killed on Embassy Avenue? It's probably her."

And I had seen another funeral as I was approaching. I feel that these deaths — I don't know why the community, my community, can't take a hold of that. I do think that in the black community that raised me, we would have taken hold of it. 

What's the difference? 

I think that there's a disintegration. I think the lack of dignity that people have about their lives. My mother and her siblings were raised in the Depression. I have a picture that I take everywhere that I go of them, poor as can be in, you know, their little ragged clothes. They all, you know, went to college.

I think that poverty is now considered some kind of a disgrace, some kind of a pathology, and it wasn't in that generation, and it wasn't in my generation. You know, the idea was that we would all move forward … and we'd help each other. Something happened. Maybe people say its crack cocaine.

I think that … it's the evolving over time of an extraordinary division between rich and poor that has occurred in this country. You've heard all the Democrats talking about it in the debates. And not just a division between rich and poor but the great division now between the middle class and the wealthy. And people who say the middle class is gone. All the jobs that left Baltimore.

Baltimore is indicative of what's happening in other cities across the country right now. And when you go and you dig in and you interview these people for your project, do you still see hope for the future?

I don't know if I'm so infatuated with hope. Unless you mean the ability to move in spite of what looks catastrophe. If that's what you mean by hope, I'm a hope-a-holic.

If what you really mean is optimism, which is kind of saying, "Well, looks like it'll be better," but I don't think we can talk about hope until we really … look deeply at the problem. That's kind of like saying, "Well, I think you have cancer, but let's think about when you'll be well." That's not how we deal with it.

"Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education" is a two-act show, and in that first act you become many, many characters. How do you change hats so quickly?

Well, this is a smaller show. I mean, in — my biggest show was about Washington and about the press, and I did 52 characters in that show. So, I mean, "Notes From the Field" … I think less than 20. It's all technical, you know. It's all what I've been teaching myself how to do for a long time. But it helps that when I was a little girl in Baltimore, I was a mimic. 

What do you hope it becomes? You are saying it is still in development? 

I'll tell you what it is now is that it is built to provoke conversation. With the hope that conversation will lead to action. And that audiences will ironically come out of this show thinking, "Wow, it's not a show, it's real, and what can I do about it?"

We have lost a generation, and we're losing more. And it's kind of a moral crisis. Can we really afford to just throw people away on the basis of their color and how that color is related to their lack of opportunity?

Based on the people you've talked to, are there particular areas of failure in our society? 

I think we expect too much of schools. I think it's absolutely unfair to blame teachers for this. I think it's unfair to attribute it all to school discipline. When [President Barack] Obama made his remarks about Baltimore, it was a very eloquent speech, and he said, "If we think we're going to fix this by fixing the police, absolutely not possible."

I think of even though the police have got an extraordinary amount of attention, you know, and we should be aware — thank goodness for technology and cameras, you know, little cameras that we can see what's been happening from Ferguson until now. It's been happening all the time. Now we can look at it. But the police are in many ways just the front line for all of us. They protect property. They protect my property.

They are the arm of the government we interact with. 

They're there. I mean, I'm sure you and I have different reaction if the police pulls us over. My guess is maybe I'm more frightened than you. But the fact is they protect us. They feel that, as being that thin blue line, they're doing their duty to serve.

But these problems have to do with poverty, and they have to do with drugs, and they have to do with guns. I think drugs and kids who are selling drugs at age 14 and the guns that they have to help them in that enterprise — I think that's a really big part of it. And the other big part of it is despair. You asked about hope, and so a lot of young people need treatment now that, you know, again, in my generation they didn't, or in my mother's generation they didn't. The big word in school discipline now is the word "trauma." I've seen that word become bigger and bigger, just in the last two years of my doing this research. So in my mind's eye, the utopia is a whole new school, a whole different kind of a school. Just a different kind of a place. 

Like what? 

Well, if we expect teachers to be psychiatrists, champions, get test scores going, do the perfect kind of discipline, which isn't about sending you out of the room or suspending you or yelling at you but loving you and getting the best out of you, whatever all these ideas we have, teachers can't do it.

So I think that we have to make schools more like — I don't want to use … "community center" because that has the wrong ring. They have to be safe places where kids want to come because they know when they get there, people will make them feel better. And that they'll be working towards not just a diploma but wellness.

Weren't those responsibilities once more the role of the individual families, though?

Well, the family is just disintegrated in these poor families because of the generations now that we have. I mean, these kids are — I mean, one of the characters in the play is just got accepted to college, a young Latino man that I met in Northern California.

And he just got accepted into college. And I said, "Well," I said, "is your mother alive?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "She must be happy about that," and he goes, "Well, my mother's happy. She's happy. She's happy I'm out, she's happy my brother's out, she's happy her brothers are out, cause they went to prison, I went to Y.A."

So we have a situation where it's like, your brother is prison, your uncles are in prison. And time after time, when I talked to kids, it was like, "Well, when my uncle was in the penitentiary, he told me this. When my other family members have situations with the police, they told me that."

‘We have lost a generation, and we’re losing more. And it’s kind of a moral crisis. Can we really afford to just throw people away on the basis of their color and how that color is related to their lack of opportunity?’

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

So the family has been ravaged by these things that have happened … We can't look to these families unless we have ways of supporting them, and maybe schools should be places where parents come for parenting skills and so forth.

I know you've also done a lot of research on the school-to-prison pipeline. How would you describe this problem?

Well, when people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, they're really talking about disciplinary practices. Because the United States Department of Justice has statistics that prove that African-American, Latino and Native American children are disciplined more harshly and they are suspended quickly. Famously, there's pictures of, like, 5-year-olds being handcuffed, right? And the — a number of suspensions does affect the likelihood that these young people will be in prison. I think that's just a part of it. And what I've learned because I was chasing the school-to-prison pipeline is that I see a broader picture, again, of the ravages of poverty.

What do we do about it? Do we have to have to go back and address the poverty issues, the root causes? And would some of these other surface issues kind of go away?

I mean, we know what schools have been. It's an institution that we understand. I think we need to rebuild them so that there are more services there.

I met a young man who was in prison outside of Washington, D.C. He is 18 years old. And at the end of the interview, I was finished, but he leaned forward and said, "Can I please tell you why I'm afraid not to be locked up?" And it's because, he says, once you get committed, which means being sent to jail, they give you services.

He says … they give you a job, you got a tutor, you get mental [health care]. But once your commitment ends, you have no services whatsoever. He said, "So I would like to be able to stay in jail till I'm 21." And then he says, "The only problem with that is, once I'm locked up, they can send me anywhere they want. Can be Utah, Minnesota, Nebraska."

Imagine that. Just imagine a young man who would rather be inside than be outside in the streets, where he sees that he will have no opportunity than to sell drugs, rob cars and people. And to end up right back in the same situation, maybe worse.

So, you know, I think that we've put all of our resources — you know, he's talking about the things he thinks are good in prison — jobs, tutors and mental health. So we've put all of our resources on the back end. So what would happen if all that money, all those billions of dollars were put on the front end? And we'll give some tutoring and some mental on the front end? And interrupt what's going on when a child is still young enough for us to really help him out. And not have him in a system where, you know, from what I see, most kids drop out of the system in eighth grade — 13, 14 years old is when it all starts to go down.

You didn't plan on going on theater for a career. Yet here you are talking about these serious issues. If you could do it all over again, would you pick a different career route in order to talk about this? 

I wanted to be a linguistic ethnologist. At the time, I was very infatuated with French and German. And I went to college as a language major … but that fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons.

In a way, I've become a sort of a linguistic ethnologist, right? I'm looking at how people’s language tells me about the world around them and about them. If I had it to do over, I mean, I don't know. I really don't know. Sometimes I wish that I had just been really successful in a sitcom.


Make a lot more money.

What would that empower you to do that you can't do right now?

I mean, quite frankly, if people didn't know me from "The West Wing" and they didn't know me from "Nurse Jackie," this is very, very important in my ability to develop an audience. So I don't have an idea, for example, about, like, high culture, low culture or anything like that. And of course, television is where some of the best writing in America is found. So I guess it all goes together as a piece. But on the other hand, sometimes I think it would have been fine to, you know, have come out of acting school and like, gotten put on a sitcom and have a beautiful place in LA. I mean, when I go swimming, I've gotta go find a pool. It'd be nice to have one in my backyard, be nice to have a backyard. 

What's next for you?

This project, for the moment, this project that we're talking about today, for the moment.

Why is it your passion?

I'm essentially I am a dramatist, you know. Whether you want to call what I'm doing theater or not, I am a dramatist. And drama is about catastrophe. And so I have —I've followed several catastrophes over my career, and I find that catastrophe is the place where people become most creative in their language.

Remember I talked about being a linguistic ethnologist, because when something terrible has happened to you, you have to use all of your resources to make sense out of it. And most importantly, to bring dignity back to yourself. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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