Anna Deavere Smith on Balancing Art and Advocacy in 'Notes From the Field'

"Nobody wants to make dogmatic work. I hope what I'm doing has enough in there to move people."
Courtesy of HBO

Notes From the Field isn't typical Saturday night movie fare. On Feb. 24, the HBO time slot traditionally reserved for second-run blockbusters or flashy original telepics goes to Anna Deavere Smith's latest stage piece — a simmering one-woman indictment of America's school-to-prison pipeline.

The 2016 work, the results of years of research, finds Smith again channeling the voices of others — as she did in celebrated works Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 — only this time each of the 18 real-life personas she attaches to herself shows the various ways in which public education is failing the poor. "I see it as a tapestry of social problems," says Smith, who starts the show with the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and its aftermath in Baltimore.

Smith hopes that Notes From the Field, which also will be streaming on all HBO platforms starting Sunday, will also be a jumping off point of discussion and change the viewers who don't see the scope of the education problem in their everyday lives. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter earlier in February, she talked about the role the late Jonathan Demme played in bringing it to screen, what the broken system means for the future and how high schoolers — like the ones at Marjory Stoneman Douglas — are the future of protest.

This is pretty avant-garde for a Saturday night movie. How did it end up on HBO?

I'll take your word for it. I don't think of what I do as avant-garde. It really started with Jonathan Demme, who saw the play very early on. He wanted to make a movie of it, and then, separately, a bunch of HBO executives showed up. HBO has a deal with what was his company, Playtone, and we were all able to work happily together until Jonathan died. As he got sicker and sicker, he asked Kristi Zea, a longtime production designer on a lot of his movies, to step in as director. I think almost all of the people who were part of the project thought that doing this was part of his legacy.

What about it appealed to Jonathan?

He felt it was important. I had been in a couple of his movies, but he wanted me to see two of his documentary works. One, of all things, was J.T. — his docu-drama about Justin Timberlake's tour. The other was his extraordinary documentary I'm Carolyn Parker, which is about a woman in New Orleans who waited several years to have her house put back together after Hurricane Katrina. I actually spent Election night 2016 watching J.T. once I became disheartened with the news.

Tell me a little bit about the research process of putting the play together.

In 2011, I decided I wanted to tackle education. I spent 2012 raising money, and then I went out on the road in 2013, 2014 and again in 2015. The first workshop of any note was the summer of 2015. I interviewed about 250 people across four geographic areas — Norther California, Philadelphia, Baltimore and South Carolina in this very poor area known as the "Corridor of Shame" where the schools and communities are in bad shape.

How did you come to decide on tackling education?

Hillary Clinton's former chief of staff, Maggie Williams, had [suggested it] to me once, and I put it in the back of my head. What really brought my interest to this view, where education crosses with criminal justice, was a philanthropist who felt I could use my position in the theater to draw attention to it. I was appalled by the stories that I heard — evidence to me that kids who are poor, black, brown, Native American and poor white, are being punished very harshly for things that would be considered mischief for rich kids.

Did you have familiarity with these problems before starting research?

My mother was a teacher, so were her friends. Everyone was in education in some way because in those days, that's all an educated black woman could do. That or be a nurse, really. It was part of my life as a child and I saw how it made a difference in lives. I went in a different direction, into the arts. I teach, but it's at places where people are very advantaged — like NYU, where I teach right now. I lost track, and I was horrified when I saw how bad public education has become.

You've taught for a while. Have students changed much in that time?

Yes. And they're going to change again, aren't they? Pedro Noguera, a very distinguished professor at UCLA who I met when he was at NYU, told me that activism isn't going to happen in colleges anymore. It costs too much. They have these big loans, they don't want to make trouble and they're busy. Activism is going to happen in high schools. I just reached out him to say, "Well, we're seeing some activism out of high schools now in Florida."

And the kids who go to college represent a more specific body than those in high school.

It isn't fair to say that college kids are privileged. They are, but the privilege — in addition to the money — is that early on in their lives the lights got switched on about the value of learning. The ones I teach are a joy. I teach artists in an MFA program, and they're really talented and interesting. It intensifies my sadness about these other experiences. Kids don't get switched on. They don't ever get to know how innately brilliant they are. The number of kids who come out of American public education and can't read is a disgrace.

How would you describe Notes From the Field to someone scanning through their HBO app?

A portrait of America at a crossroads, pointing one way toward more money for prisons and one way toward more money for schools. You say avant-garde, but I see it more as a tapestry of social problems. I think it's a progressive work of art asking for change — for a system to change.

What kind of attention have you given to the after-life of the play, getting people to push for change?

We did a lot of work when this was a play, before New York, where I didn't even do a second act. We'd stop the show, ask audiences of about 500 people to go out and have conversations in small groups of 20 or so. "What are you going to do about this?" "Do you see yourself in proximity at all?" Of course, it's part of our reality, because to have a country that's not completely literate is also a security problem. A country where people are not physically fit enough to serve in the armed services is a security problem. It's the problem of inevitable decline. And for some it's a moral problem. So many people involved in the show have become socially involved.

Is there any catharsis in sharing these words onstage?

I would hope the catharsis would be for the audience. For me, it's a highly technical enterprise. When it's in the theater, I'm there by 2 o'clock in the afternoon — running through my lines and revising things a little. I'm meditating. I'm praying. It's a lot to go out there, have the lights go on, and for little over 90 minutes say everything right. It's huge. I don't think I have time for catharsis while I'm up there. It's not to say it's not an emotional experience — it is — but being on the road was an emotional experience.

Who in the culture is fighting the good fight right now?

There are a lot of people. My mentee, Samora Pinderhughes, is an incredible jazz pianist who's been playing since he was a little boy. He's trying to take this virtuosic ability that he has and apply it to some of the questions we're talking about right now. He really admires Kendrick Lamar. I can only appreciate it through him. Shonda Rhimes, whose new show [For the People] I'm on, when I think what she's done inside of a mainstream paradigm — culturally and finically — has changed everything. I've never been on a set as diverse as Shonda's. I haven't seen Black Panther, but people who have are telling me what this means. I always look to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. And, in the visual arts, there's my friend Thelma Golden who runs The Studio Museum in Harlem.

And are we going to see more?

In the '90s, I was very interested in artists who worked for social change. But it was kind of a new idea then. Now, there's not a college I visit where students don't want to talk to me about how to use their work for the betterment of mankind — how to make art with purpose. I think we'll see a lot more of that in the mainstream, because it's a genre now. Once there's a genre, there are more and more opportunities for discussion and new techniques to make things better. Nobody wants to make dogmatic work. I hope what I'm doing has enough in there to move people.

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