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Anna Deavere Smith Brings One-Woman Play 'Notes From The Field' To HBO


If you are a television fan, then you might know Anna Deavere Smith from her roles as the hippie grandmother on "Black-ish," the hospital administrator in "Nurse Jackie" and the national security adviser on "The West Wing." But she's also an accomplished playwright whose work through the years has consistently taken on complicated social issues like the state of American health care and intense civil conflicts like the LA riots. Her latest project is a one-woman show, "Notes From The Field." It makes the case that inadequate education funnels many minority and low-income kids into a criminal justice system which further traps them into a cycle of poverty, a so-called school-to-prison pipeline. But it tells the story in Deavere Smith's own unique way. Drawing from interviews with more than 250 people, Deavere Smith embodies each person and speaks his or her actual words, including Kevin Moore, the Baltimore man whose video of Freddie Gray being thrown into a police van brought a national spotlight onto policing practices in Baltimore.


ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: You put leg shackles on a man that can barely walk to the paddywagon? That don't make sense to me.

MARTIN: And Taos Proctor, a Native American fisherman trying to turn his life around after prison.


DEAVERE SMITH: You know, the longer you're in there, the more you even lose your feelings about caring. You know, stab somebody. Stab them. Stab them. Stab them.

MARTIN: "Notes From The Field" was recently film for release on HBO, so we thought this would be a good time to talk to Anna Deavere Smith. We reached her via Skype, and we asked her why she wanted to bring "Notes From The Field" to a larger audience.

DEAVERE SMITH: This is the most personal of anything I've ever done because it's about education. And my mother was a teacher in Baltimore. All my father's sisters were teachers. All my mother's friends were teachers. Her sisters were teachers. And so these are people who really pushed forward everything that Brown v. Board of Ed was about, which is, you know, education is an antidote to inequality and racism and many of the things that surround people who live in poverty. And when I got a sense of how bad it was for poor kids, then I really felt that it's what I'm supposed to do as a part of my lineage.

MARTIN: You've received a lot of awards for pioneering this kind of interview style of theater, which then - you then embody the people whom you have interviewed. How do you choose who to focus on? I mean, that just seems like a daunting task.

DEAVERE SMITH: I rely on what made a physical impression on me as I sat in front of someone. Anybody who ends up in the 18 people who I play in "Notes From The Field" is going to be somebody who had a story that would cause the audience to respond with their heart, not just their mind. That type of a story is very moving to most people.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end though, we are in a moment where people seem to be very separated from each other. You know, there seems to be a lot of silos. And I just - I'm wondering, first of all, do you think that that's true? Are you feeling like it's harder to get people to receive something that's not already familiar?

DEAVERE SMITH: Well, you know, I think that leads me to something that I've been thinking about, Michel, with regard to Parkland and the young people we've seen come forward there. You know what I'd like to see is a type of leadership that would link those kids to kids who are living in urban areas and having another kind of violence that visits them on a regular basis and that I'd like to see kids across lines, across experiences come together.

MARTIN: Do you have some advice for people listening to our conversation who'd say, you know what, I want to be part of the solution, not the problem, I want to have more civil dialogue?

DEAVERE SMITH: Yeah. Well, I think that if there are young people listening to you and me, Michel, they have to define those boundaries that you alluded to earlier. They really need to walk where they don't belong. My life's work has been to go around America with a tape recorder trying to become America word for word. And I've met a lot of people who I disagree with. I've met a lot of people who you would think I would disagree with. But I have to say it's enriched my sense of being an American to reach out to people who are very, very different from me. It's a lot of fun. So that's the advice that I would give.

MARTIN: That's Anna Deavere Smith. Her latest project, "Notes From The Field," is available on HBO now. She was kind enough to speak to us via Skype. Anna Deavere Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEAVERE SMITH: Thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.