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Actress Anna Deavere Smith in town for project on school-to-prison pipeline

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

Renowned actress, playwright, professor, and activist Anna Deavere Smith is in Philadelphia for research on one of her signature projects that combine journalism, ethnography, social commentary, and theater. Her subject: the school-to-prison pipeline.

Smith discussed her work-in-progress Wednesday night in a packed session at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where the plan is for her finished theatrical work to be produced at the end of the 2014-15 season. A documentary is also being made about her process in crafting the piece.

As she has done for similar projects, Smith is interviewing dozens of people – in this case, students, teachers, parents, principals, judges, public defenders, prisoners, former prisoners, prison officials, politicians, police, advocates, school dropouts, thought leaders, and people working with the anti-violence project CeaseFire – to shed light on the sprawling topic.

Smith, who is well-known for her roles on TV shows like The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, teaches at New York University and has won accolades that include a MacArthur “genius” award. She has become known for crafting one-woman shows using verbatim transcripts of the interviews that she conducts. She then portrays many characters — of all ages, races, genders, and backgrounds — each of whom sheds a different sliver of light on the subject. These multiple perspectives on the topic constantly challenge the audience to understand things in a new way.

In these projects, she has taken on daunting subjects, such as tensions between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; the Los Angeles riots; the AIDS pandemic; the Rwandan genocide; and the American presidency. The Pipeline Project is part of a body of work she calls a “search for American character.”

By calling it that, she said, “there’s an expectation … a hope, that it’s there and will pull us through, and when we fall from the best of where we are and when we give up on people, when we give up on justice, we can find it again.”

She is especially interested in illuminating how Americans deal with race, identity, and community. In reviewing one of her plays, the New York Times said that Smith does more than impersonate characters, she “does people’s souls.”

Haverford English professor Kimberly Benston, who interviewed Smith onstage at Philadelphia Theatre Company, said that she has created “a new kind of theater” that confronts many of society’s most profound problems “through an inventive technique that embraces … the diligent act of listening.”

But Smith said that her intention with this piece is to depart from her usual approach and write “a work of fiction,” a play with multiple actors and storylines in which she may or may not appear herself. Asked why, she said she had concluded that it was time to do something different.

In Wednesday night’s audience were several people whom she has already interviewed, including a judge and a public defender. She said she has spoken so far to 25 to 30 people and plans to come back in April to interview 25 to 30 more. She said that she has no rigid process for finding her subjects, operating much like a journalist in constantly widening her circle.

Smith is also going to several other locations to do interviews for The Pipeline Project, including San Francisco and Stockton, Calif., the tiny rural area of Klamath, Calif., a location in the Deep South, and Baltimore.

Smith, 63, attended Arcadia University (when it was still Beaver College) at the height of the civil rights movement. She described herself as “one of seven Negro girls,” insecure and lacking confidence. Smith was encouraged and inspired by an English professor at a time when she needed support.

“I understand what it means to have a teacher who believes in you when you don’t believe in yourself,” she said.

She applied that lesson to the education system today, talking about students who are cast aside and others who are nurtured. She said the tendency goes back to Thomas Jefferson, whose theory of education included culling the “geniuses” from the “rubbish.” But she said that in her interviews so far for this project, she has found incredible energy and empowerment among people rather than an attitude of oppression.

PTC producing artistic director Sara Garonzik said that anyone interested in being interviewed can contact Smith through the PTC website. The project, part of PTC’s annual festival of new work, is being supported by the Knight Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation.

“It’s not just a personal portrait that I’m looking for,” Smith said. “I’m asking all these marvelous people to testify for me what they have witnessed as this city is in disarray, having closed many public schools and lost an incredible amount of the money that is needed to make schools be places to help people grow and become … productive members of this society.”

It’s not only the facts that she needs, she said, but people to “help me feel the passion for this disarray.”

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