By Megan Schilling
Students, faculty and other audience members assembled in Kendall Hall on April 25 to witness an acclaimed actress, playwright and educator speak on community, character and diversity.
Anna Deavere Smith has created award-winning one-woman shows in which she transforms herself into a number of characters. Her shows explore topics such as social inequality and injustice, as well as the school-to-prison pipeline — the disproportionate likelihood that young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds will become incarcerated.
In 2012, Smith was awarded the National Humanities Medal, presented by former President Barack Obama. In 2015, Smith was named the Jefferson Lecturer, the nation’s highest honor in the humanities field.
Smith currently appears as Rainbow’s mother, Alicia, on ABC’s hit series “Black-ish” and is recognizable as the hospital administrator on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie.”
Smith began her lecture by taking audience members on her journey through hundreds of conversations that inspired her to write her play, “Notes From The Field,” using each individual encounter as a starting place to delve into the issues of racism and poverty.
Time Magazine named her play as one of the Top 10 Plays of 2016 and the MacArthur Foundation honored Smith for creating “a new form of theatre — a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.”
Smith interviewed almost 250 people around the country for “Notes from the Field,” but the film focuses on the stories of only 18 of those people. During the event, she brought these stories to life as she expressed each person’s concerns for social issues while in character.
Among those she interviewed for her project was Kevin Moore, a Baltimore deli worker who happened to videotape the 2015 beating of Freddie Gray as police dragged him into a van. Gray died a week later from injuries sustained during his arrest.
Smith also interviewed more well-known figures such as Georgian civil rights activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis.
“I learned to really respect the people I’ve met along this journey,” Smith said. “I began to realize that it is truly the poverty-to-prison pipeline rather than school-to-prison.”
Many of the people Smith presented in her play were incarcerated when they were young, and fought for justice in a number of ways. Smith impressed the audience with her ability to perform a wide range of different character monologues all while pushing the larger message of exposing the school-to-prison pipeline and overall injustice in the U.S.
Smith, through impression, told the story of Niya Kenny, a high school student in South Carolina who went to jail when she attempted to intervene as a police officer violently disciplined her classmate.
“Most people, when they think about the youth in the criminal justice system, seem to think about boys,” Smith said. “Something’s the matter with that. Girls have a story, too.”
Smith explained that young people in this country often get in trouble with police simply for running their mouths and having an attitude, but not for committing a crime.
When asked how she filtered out over 300 hours of material in order to film the movie and chose which people she wanted to emphasize in the play, Smith discussed how important the power of the story was along with how it was told.
Smith explained that sometimes the way people speak can narrate their story better than anything else, because it adds a relatable, emotional aspect. This is why she takes on their speech and character in order to grasp the full effect.
“I really pick the moments in that the people are talking, but for me they start to sing,” Smith said. “That’s my metaphor. They start to speak in very particular and creative ways.”