Anna Deavere Smith Strives Toward a More Perfect Union

A filmed version of the playwright and performer’s “Notes From the Field” premieres on HBO this weekend


Anna Deavere Smith would like you to watch Notes From the Field, her one-woman documentary drama that will screen on HBO Saturday night — not that she thinks this is enough. “I don’t like passive observance,” she said on a recent afternoon. A tireless performer and a woman of great social conscience, Smith might be most recognizable for her stints on The West Wing and Nurse Jackie. But her signal achievement is an umbrella project she began so many years ago she’s lost count: “On the Road: A Search for the American Character.”

What Smith does is this: She roams the country, she finds people, she listens to them, and then she portrays them, onstage and on film, weaving their verbatim speech into theatrical tapestries that reveal how Americans hate and hope and fear and love — word by word. Smith’s great gift is to imagine herself into the lives and voices of others, to achieve what she has called “the broad jump towards the other.” So far she has made nineteen documentary dramas. She isn’t finished. She’ll never be finished.

Notes From the Field, an “On the Road” installment that appeared Off-Broadway in 2016, tackles the school-to-prison pipeline: a system that routinely punishes poor and minority students for classroom infractions, grooming them for later incarceration. In the words of Sherrilyn Ifill, the head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the first character Smith portrays in the piece, “It’s impossible to talk about the criminal-justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education.”

In preparing Notes, Smith interviewed a total of 250 people; in the finished work, she performs eighteen of them — teachers, students, an activist, a pastor, Representative John Lewis. Reviewing the theatrical version for the Voice, critic Helen Shaw wrote, “Smith’s powerful style of living journalism uses the collective, cathartic nature of the theater to move us from despair toward hope.” The HBO version, which will be available to subscribers following this weekend’s premiere, was filmed by Kristi Zea, a noted production designer (The DepartedRevolutionary Road) who took on the project when the late Jonathan Demme, the original director, became ill.

Smith spoke to the Voice in an executive dining room at the HBO offices opposite Bryant Park, seated behind a lipstick-stained cup of coffee she’d either finished or forgotten. She doesn’t know if the HBO viewers who see Notes From the Field will understand it as a call to action — if they’ll be moved to work for change. “I can only do it and then hope that something happens,” she said. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Is this piece especially personal for you?

Anna Deavere Smith: I feel like this was going back home, in that it was about going back to my roots of having grown up with teachers all around me and understanding education as an opportunity for inquiry. In the case of race relations, [education] was meant to be, in my generation, the antidote to inequality and racism. It hasn’t worked out that way.

You interviewed 250 people. How did you decide on these eighteen voices?

A lot of the whittling-down is happening in the course of the interview. I meet somebody who says something and says it so well. And I go, “Uh-huh, wow, gotta do that.” What I count on, which may not be wise, is: In the sum total of the 250, what made an impression on me? What do I remember?

When you start to embody these people, how do you begin? Voice first? Gesture?

It’s voice first. Always voice. If I were a dancer, it would be gesture first. But I’m a listener, and I have been all my life, so that’s where I’m going to start.

Do you ever have a sense in performance of channeling the person? Of bringing the person forth?

No, it’s very technical. It’s just about hitting the notes, hitting the words, getting the words right. I never get it completely right. Ever. But I try.

At least with film you get retakes.

No. There were no retakes. We just shot two straight performances in a soundstage in New York. They made it look like a theater, but it wasn’t theater. It was a set.

This piece seems to go beyond the school-to-prison pipeline. Is it really about the injustice of being born into a body that isn’t white? 

If I hadn’t decided to take a television show [the ABC legal procedural For the People], I would have probably gone to East Tennessee, to see what the experience of poor white people is. It was instructive to me to hear what Sherrilyn Ifill had to say about how we can’t really talk about criminal justice without talking about education and vice versa. And it’s going to be even more so now, with the events in Parkland, Florida, there will be more police in schools. I am sure it’s going to affect disciplinary practices all over the country. Of course, people always used to say when white folks get a cold, black folks get pneumonia. So having those cops inside of schools that are already in communities that are under surveillance — yeah. There you have it.

This is a work of art, but is it also a call to action?

Let me first of all say that in two of the regional theaters [where she performed], we did stop the show in the middle to give the audience an opportunity to talk in small groups about what are you going to do, what can we do. I don’t like passive observance. Anita Hill once told me that people would come up to her on the street after the hearings and say, “I watched the whole thing,” as if that was doing something. That wasn’t doing anything.

I feel we’re in this wonderful era of art and art making, your generation and those younger than you, to use art as a convening mechanism and a call to action. I trust the imaginations of people. How are we going to manage to get beyond the smallness of our own lives and begin to see ourselves as American citizens broadly and to spark moral imagination about the number of people who are lost, who are being lost, who are sent to be lost? Can we really afford to just throw people away? I don’t know the answer, but I can just try to pose the question.

One of the portraits I was most haunted by was Niya Kenny’s. [Kenny, a high school student, was arrested after she spoke about when a deputy sheriff threw a classmate to the floor.] Have you kept in touch with her? 

Niya’s going to come to our screening tonight. Niya is an extraordinary person who had a conscience, who had a moral core from when she was a very little girl. And that’s a gift. We think about gifts as, “Oh, she’s pretty,” or “Oh, he’s smart.” We don’t think about kindness and concern as a gift. But I think it’s a gift. They should get some credit for that.

Is it a gift or do you think it’s teachable? Are these performances teaching empathy?

Is it explicitly teachable? I don’t think so. I tried to give a workshop on it, and I don’t think it’s explicitly so. I think we can make conditions where it ought to happen. I’m going to be teaching in a very competitive environment at NYU. I’m a provocateur and I’m trying to make an environment where they [the students] can challenge each other and actually — in American education, we never use that four-letter word l-o-v-e — love one another. I love this idea of radical kindness.

Are you inviting your audiences to embrace that, too?

I don’t know what they’ll think. I don’t know what happens. The conductor who was conducting Beethoven’s Ninth the first time I ever saw it live, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, he never knew who I was. It was a transformative experience. When I saw June Jordan at the Public Theater reciting poetry, it changed me forever, but she didn’t know that. That’s part of the mystery. It is not quantifiable. We can’t really ever know.

Do you feel hopeful?

Well, I feel grateful for the people doing the real work. I’d be a terrible teacher. I’d be a terrible social worker. I couldn’t last in some of these schools and environments. But my friend, Judge Abby [Abinanti], who is chief judge of the Yurok tribe, I feel very grateful to have met her, to have met a person who’s really committed and who is a real healer. I call them the walkers — the people who walk with the people who are struggling. I have evidence that those people exist and for that reason, I would say I’m hopeful.

You’re nineteen plays into a search for the American character. Are you any closer to finding it?

I’m never going to find it. I never said I was going to find it — “On the Road: A Search for the American Character.” But I do believe this other idea that’s also kind of a grandiose idea: “Towards a more perfect union.” Whoever wrote that was giving us a lot of space without a particular deadline to get there. And we are not there. So I think I have a lot in common with that American dream.

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