Anna Deavere Smith on Exploring the American Psyche

Social Justice

Deavere Smith says she doesn't consider herself an activist. "I'm first and foremost an artist," she says. "I see using my work as an artist for its convening power."

From the streets of Baltimore to the Deep South to a Native American courtroom, the views change but the problems remain. In her latest work, Notes from the Field, Anna Deavere Smith, the celebrated playwright and actress, set out to “become America, word for word,” she told a crowd at Emerson Collective’s Demo Day ’18. That meant interviewing more than 250 people working on the front lines of our country’s most intractable problems, including the school-to-prison pipeline, police brutality, and racial and class inequity, and then presenting, verbatim, 18 of their interviews—similar in format to Smith’s breakthrough one-woman shows Fire in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

Here, Emerson Collective spoke with the award-winning artist about what it meant to personify some of the most profound issues facing America today.

What was the greatest lesson you learned in developing this work?

You might be surprised by this, but I learned that racism is real. My life’s work has really been dedicated to showing racism, naming racism, and offering solutions to the problem. And I learned in a new way just how real it is. I think that many Americans are seeing that live, now, as a lot of hate that has been hidden is coming forward.

On the other hand, I learned about remarkable people who are doing remarkable things to change lives and circumstances with very few resources. And so I come out of this full of hope. There are people I met who walk with the people most of us don’t want to be involved with. We treat them as if we can catch poverty, as if we can catch failure like disease. The “walkers” don’t give up on people, no matter how many times they go back to prison, no matter how many times they’ve failed. They never give up on them.

The play explores probes into some pretty uncomfortable parts of the American psyche—inequity, hate, bigotry. Is voicing all of that your way of agitating for change?

People call me an activist. I don’t really think I am. I’m first and foremost an artist, and I understand the limit of what I can do. I see using my work as an artist for its convening power. I really believe in the potential of audiences convened as strangers who would not necessarily otherwise be together. They can come out of an experience in any artform with a desire to change something about their lives or the lives of people around them. For me, that’s a critical part of this project. In this project, more than in anything I’ve ever done, I had a mission. I tried to move audiences out of a state of passive observance.

In "Notes From the Field" Deavere Smith portrays all 18 characters herself.

And you mean that literally, right? You really involved your audiences in this production.

For three productions of the play, we planned a special audience experiment. We stopped the show in the middle, and put audiences of 500 people in small discussion groups of about 20 people, with trained facilitators. They were sent to places all over the theater: lobbies, in one case the artistic director’s office, in another the paint shop. In other words, we moved audiences out of their ”observer” positions and put them all over the theater space. They essentially became the ”second act” of the performance. A lot of people would think, “What is this touchy-feely stuff?” But those audiences were willing to try. They were willing to sit in circles with strangers and talk about these problems. They then returned for a coda—where I and the bass player who was on stage with me closed the show.

Who do you want this work to reach?

I’m eager to see young people—under 25—respond to the play. I had a chance to perform it for high school students, and one middle school principal had his eighth-graders see it. I think the good thing about having a younger audience is that they can see themselves in these issues.

Particularly in this climate, with what happened in Parkland, Florida, we’re seeing students themselves becoming spokespeople. We can take that type of desire to have a better environment and empower them to change their circumstances. I would love for the movie, accompanied by a study guide or discussion questions, to be of use there.

What keeps you hopeful about our future?

Often when people ask about hope, they really mean, “How do you know it’s going to be OK?” I don’t know if it’s going to be OK! I know that it’s pretty bad. But I have met incredible people on the ground who are working hard every single day, doing things I could never do. Every day they put one foot in front of the other because they actually believe in something, and they don’t have time to be cynical.

Right now there is darkness in leadership in this country—of not believing in goodness, not performing goodness, and not performing hope. People are making up for it in many different arenas, and artists are among them. People are saying, “This is not the country that I’m going to have. I’m not going to stand for hate. I’m going to stand for love. I’m not going stand for talking about human beings in the world as though they’re worthless. I’m going dedicate myself to showing the worth I see in humanity.” So the bad news of our time is good news in terms of people having to come out of their passive observance.