Everyone has a voice, but not all voices have platforms to be heard. It has been Anna Deavere Smith’s life work to share these voices and their stories with the rest of the world. The Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee is bringing her extraordinary one-woman show, Notes From the Field to HBO. Ahead of the film’s premiere, we sat down to chat about this masterful work and why she was so compelled to tell these truths.
Smith began exploring the school to prison pipeline – which forces underprivileged minority children out of classrooms and into jail cells — years ago. However, over the course of her research, the playwright discovered that there was much more to unearth. “It’s much more than just that,” she explained earnestly. “Very early on I saw that many of the teachers who I met were people that were working very hard with not a lot of resources. Also, there are a lot of things in the bureaucracy of schools because of test scores and data that took up a lot of time and didn’t really allow people to focus on children as whole beings. If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t have lost art and sports in poor schools in the way that we did. This is not just about schools, it’s about poverty in general and I hope that are things in the movie that help make that clear to us. For example, Mayor Michael Tubbs talks about how his girlfriend came to visit him in Stockton and she wanted an apple, and he couldn’t find anywhere to buy her one. We know that a lot of poor communities are food deserts.”
Years of research went into Notes From the Field and out of hundreds of interviews, Smith brings approximately eighteen voices to life. Though no one story is better than another, these were the voices that spoke loudest to the professor as she began crafting the original play. “The bulk of the people who are in the movie are also who were in the play,” she explained. “With all of my plays I have a lot more material than I can ever use. I usually do more than 200 interviews, and this is about the eighteenth play I’ve made this way. I’m gonna come to the rehearsal hall with a play that’s way too long, and then I actually use the process of performing and rehearsal to start to hone it down. I’m usually rewriting the play every single night during rehearsal and coming back with something new to show the director in the morning. It’s trial and error.”
Smith, who is no stranger to the screen or the stage has worked on massive projects like this one before including her 1992 play Fires in the Mirror and her ’94 stunner, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. With so many years in the business, I wondered if Notes From the Field in particular, and at this present time changed the way she viewed herself as an artist. “That’s a really artist sensitive question,” Smith said quietly. “I just hope that every time I go out there, I’m better. I hope that I’m a better interviewer than I was a long time ago. I hope I’m better at picking what should be in the play. I certainly hope that I’m a better performer and that’s just accruing experience over time. I just hope it pays off. Every single work that I make is an opportunity of really honing down my own process because I did create a process through which I work. Nobody taught me this process. I had to teach myself how to work, and I had to teach the people who were working with me how to work. I always treasure the chance to make it better.”
Historically, education has been touted as the way for minorities to elevate themselves and rise through the ranks of society, capturing a piece of the American Dream. With so many roadblocks in place, it’s pertinent to ask ourselves if education is still the answer — or at the very least the sole answer. “I’m just a lowly artist I don’t know if I can take on that question,” Smith chuckled. “That’s worth a book, it really is. We’d have to go back and look at the promises of Brown v. Board of Education. When we were doing our work in South Carolina, I learned we had a case that came before that; which was Briggs v. Elliot that Thurgood Marshall had been involved with. Once the federal government said you couldn’t segregate schools, white southerners made private schools and religious schools where their children could go so they didn’t have to go to school with Black people. We’ve counted on education. I’ve met people who got spat at. We know there are people in the trenches who’ve risked their lives for the sake of looking at education as our way out. And now, public schools are a mess. We thought education would be the way — not just to equality but getting rid of hatred — it isn’t. So I don’t know. I can’t imagine what our way out is. I do think that we could reimagine schools and make them different kinds of institutions that are not just about reading or writing. It may be that’s where we have to go.”
Notes From the Field originally debuted in 2015 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California and moved through the American Repertory Theatre and Second Stage Theatre in 2016. Now, The West Wing alum’s work is being brought to a massive audience through HBO. The journey from stage to screen was something Smith was eager to embark on. “I loved the experience of making a movie,” she expressed. “(The late) Jonathan Demme was planning to direct this movie, but his health took a turn for the worse. I asked Kristi Zea to step in as director. Kristi had been [Jonathan’s] production designer. She’s been production designer and costume designer for many great filmmakers. Whenever I had downtime, I would go and watch another movie that she had designed and I couldn’t even believe it. I would wake up in the morning and write her an email saying, ‘I can’t even believe I know you!’ I loved working with Gary Goetzman, he was executive producer, and I had to work very closely with Gary. I loved this process. I loved working with Paul Snyder, the editor. It was extraordinary. We had a chance to bring some other artists into this who hadn’t been involved. We were able to add new things that were just exhilarating. I’d make another film tomorrow if I had another chance.”
Smith created Notes From the Field during the Obama Administration. With the film premiering in our current times, it’s easy to see how it may have a different and perhaps an even more impactful meaning. “I never presume to say that my work has an impact, “ Smith said thoughtfully. “I want it to have an effect, but I think it takes time. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been asked to come and talk to high school students who are viewing my play, Twilight: Los Angeles now, and that was made in 1994. I’m happy these tend to be schools of very privileged people who are playing those parts and putting themselves in the situations of these other people and having empathic relationships to that story. Many of these kids will be leaders, so it makes me very happy. But I wrote that play a long time ago. Therefore, it takes time to have a real effect. During the Obama Administration, a lot of data was released about poor kids and harsh disciplinary practices against them. I believe Barack Obama was the only or one of two sitting Presidents who actually visited a federal prison. It was during his administration that many people became very disturbed about the enormity of mass incarceration in this country. Obviously, this current administration is not gonna have and doesn’t have that concern. But sometimes — and this is me being the hope-a-holic that I am — sometimes it’s dissent that allows us to move forward. That’s the great thing about America, at least on paper, there’s room for dissent. In my lifetime, dissent has spread very positive things, so I think this is the time that we see people take action. We have a choice of whether we’re gonna invest in schools or invest in prisons. There’s a lot of work that can be done outside of Washington and because of who is President right now, there are gonna be more people running for office on a local level, and people are being guided to try to do things locally in their communities. I think that can be very great for us.”
Notes From the Field premieres Saturday, Feb. 24th at 8 PM ET on HBO.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami