Anna Deavere Smith channels Baltimore on the school-to-prison pipeline
By By Karen Houppert
Dec 08, 2015 | 11:59 AM
The "character" on the stage casts back to her childhood and tells the audience that her father was a "race man." She grew up watching endless documentaries of the civil rights movement and was filled with awe, inspiration, and regret. "I remember thinking, 'Damn it, I missed it,'" she says. Since the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore this past year, her perspective has shifted. "What I say to the young now is, this is it."
The "character" on the stage is Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and she is played by Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, the Baltimore Chapter." Deavere Smith, known for her one-woman shows on New York's 1991 Crown Heights riots, "Fires in the Mirror," and the 1992 L.A. riots, "Twilight: Los Angeles" (as well as for her many TV roles in "Nurse Jackie" and "West Wing"), creates documentary theater pieces based on extensive interviews. This year, she pointed the lens at Baltimore, her hometown.
In her newest one-woman show, "Doing Time in Education," Deavere Smith delivers 19 powerful monologues, adeptly channeling the voices of an array of characters, including a judge, a Jessup inmate, a West Baltimore student, a deli worker (Kevin Moore, who videotaped Freddie Gray's arrest), a Baltimore protester, a Johns Hopkins professor of education, a teacher, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. This work in progress is still evolving but Baltimore audiences got a sneak peek when Deavere Smith did two shows this past weekend at Center Stage.
The play is about the school-to-prison pipeline, how so many minorities are flagged in school for disciplinary problems that are likely linked to rough home lives, exposure to violence, health issues, or learning difficulties and instead of being helped are punished and suspended, beginning a trajectory which all too often culminates in prison. Typically in her shows, Deavere Smith casts a wide net, interviewing dozens of people in order to cull a series of monologues that give audiences a 360-degree look at an issue. In her 2009 show about health care, "Let Me Down Easy," her performance was lackluster. I had a sense that she was coasting, perhaps ready to move on from a method that had outlived its usefulness, but Deavere Smith is on a tear here.
Deavere Smith, a self-proclaimed "home girl" who attended Western High, artfully channels a series of personalities with strong opinions about how we got to this period of unrest. She switches characters on a dime—puffing up with the bravado of a prison inmate who laughs off the notion that anyone would rape him; leering suggestively as a pretentious James Baldwin watches a woman leave the room; grabbing at the air for words (is it "goose" or "gis" or "geese"?) as a heavily accented Latino woman describes the noisy birds that tipped her off when her teens tried to sneak out of the house. A simple projected phrase behind Deavere Smith gives the audience basic biographical information about the person she is playing at any given moment.
"India Sledge, student, West Baltimore, 'Standin' on the corner,'" one projection reads. "I think the police be messin' with the mens, not the females," the girl-character Sledge says. She also has little tolerance for guys who hang on the corner, their pants sagging "instead of how you're supposed to wear them, on your behind." (Sagging pants come up a lot in various monologues, sometimes as a sign of the generational divide in the black community, sometimes as shorthand for disrespect and drug-slinging—though of course the fashion has long extended far beyond that.) Sledge says those guys hanging on the corner in their sagging pants ought to be elsewhere. "I really think that's why police be messing with the males instead of the females," she reiterates. "If you not selling drugs, why you standin' on the corner?" She has another beef about those guys. Why are they always calling out to her, harassing her? (See City Paper's cover story on street harassment) "What's my name? What's my number? 'Come here.' Why I 'come here?'" She shakes her head, says her mother tells her not to walk with headphones on because she needs to be aware of her surroundings. Sometimes she strikes a compromise and walks with her headphones on so she looks absorbed though she doesn't really have the volume on. "I don't like being bothered when I'm walkin'."
"Allen Bullock, Baltimore protester," the 18-year-old accused of busting a traffic cone through the windshield of a car, loops around to the topic of black men on the streets but insists it doesn't matter whether you're up to no good or on purposeful business, the cops have all the power and will twist a man's behavior as they wish. "They going to ask you, 'Why you looking at me like that?'"
Kevin Moore, one of Freddie Gray's friends who filmed Gray's arrest on his phone, also hits this topic. Deavere Smith opens this section by showing an excerpt of Gray's arrest on the projector. "Eye contact, OK, eye contact," Deavere Smith, as Moore, says. "But you know the truth . . . Just a glance. That's all it takes in Baltimore is just a glance." Moore insists "this shit is crazy," and says, "I hope to God somebody goes to jail for the murder of my friend Freddie Gray."
After Moore's monologue, Deavere Smith grows still, quiet, and assumes the measured tone and persona of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The mayor focuses on Mondawmin Mall, explaining how hard people worked to get major chains, like Target, to invest in the city and open at Mondawmin. "Then the investment that is made is then destroyed," she says. "I'm trying to understand that message."
Moore then attempts to answer that question, in a way, as Deavere Smith again becomes him, trying to explain how a beleaguered community is "just tired of feeling tired." He sighs. "Baltimore is going through such harsh times right now."
What makes "Doing Time" so wonderfully ambitious is Deavere Smith's refusal to narrow her focus. Instead of hewing tightly to the topic of education, she insists on seeing the interconnectedness of all these issues—homelessness, literacy and support services, the school-to-prison pipeline, children's exposure to violence, income inequality, bad neighborhoods, lack of economic opportunity, police brutality—and refuses to tidy up these overlapping problems for the audience. She is not didactic. Humorous touches abound and enliven the piece. Her performance invites the audience to listen to an array of perspectives and then jump in as a change-agent on whatever aspect of these problems most resonates with them. She juxtaposes the monologues carefully but leaves plenty open for interpretation and here in Baltimore, we interpret "Doing Time in Education" as being about Freddie Gray. Because everything in the city is about Freddie Gray—and the ensuing protests about black inequalities—right now. Deavere Smith's unifying theme, how racism created this whole hot mess in our country, resonates with purpose.
At Center Stage, many of the characters Deavere Smith played were locals, but Baltimoreans are not the only folks parading across the stage in "Doing Time." A professor of education at UCLA, Pedro Noguera, makes an appearance and waxes philosophical. He talks about kids and mental illness and society in general, telling a story about a homeless person who would likely be described as mentally ill. He poses a rhetorical question about a society that simply accepts the idea that some people simply sleep on the streets. How do we define normalcy, he wonders, when most people would simply walk right by that person and shrug, "that's where he sleeps."
On the heels of this swipe at our complacency, there is an intermission—with a twist. Deavere Smith tells the audience that instead of grabbing a drink at the concession area, patrons are to divide into groups based on a color-coded number in their programs and migrate to various rooms around the theater (my group of 15 meets in the third-floor costume shop, surrounded by dress forms and bolts of fabric). Many of the mainstream theatergoers in the audience find this vaguely titillating (funny, since Baltimore's DIY theater regularly plays this game of shuffling people about for site-specific works). A facilitator in the costume shop asks a series of questions and leads a discussion: "What are some things we can change? What are some things we can't change?" The conversations were a good idea in principle but were so abbreviated that people only began to feel comfortable digging into the vague topic of "change"—and wow, what a missed opportunity for these diverse groups to engage in some more provocative questions about race—when a bell went off alerting folks that it was time to return to the theater for the coda.
Back in the theater, Deavere Smith takes us to the women's prison at Jessup and then way back to hear a monologue she performs as James Baldwin. "Insofar as we are responsible for anything, we are responsible for the children," Baldwin says in this "rap on race" conversation he had with Margaret Mead in 1970. He then echoes this, for emphasis, in conclusion: "We are responsible for the child."