More than two decades before Freddie Gray and the unrest in Baltimore, there was Rodney King and the riots in Los Angeles.
And Anna Deavere Smith was there as interviewer, writer and performer to explore that savage beating of a black motorist and the unrest that followed after four policemen who pummeled him with batons as he lay in the street were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon. Few artists since have mapped the racial, cultural and community-police divides in American life more precisely than Smith, with her one-woman production "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992."
The Baltimore native is back in her hometown this weekend to perform at Center Stage in part of her latest work in progress, which explores what's been called the "schools-to-prison pipeline." It's titled "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, The Baltimore Chapter." One section in her new work is "The Death of Freddie Gray."
"I mark the last year by going from Michael Brown to South Carolina and Freddie Gray. I mean, we could make a mini film festival of these little films about police," she said of the videos that show black men being shot, placed in chokeholds or arrested by police. "Isn't that a dark idea? But we could have a film festival with all these videos now."
Sadly, she's right. After Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., came the chokehold arrest and subsequent death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. That was followed by the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, followed by the arrest of Gray and, most recently, the release of a 13-month-old police dash cam video showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald being shot and killed in Chicago. Each video tore through the media ecosystem and the culture like a tornado.
The "Death of Freddie Gray" section of her work includes her performances of Kevin Moore, the Baltimore resident who made a video of Gray's arrest, and Allen Bullock, an 18-year-old who was arrested for allegedly smashing the windshield of a police car with a traffic cone. The teen's bail was set at $500,000, which was higher than that of any of the six officers charged in Gray's death.
Smith, who interviewed the two in May, says she wonders how things might be different for Baltimore if there had been no video of Gray's arrest, or, for that matter, if George Holliday, a plumber in Los Angeles, had not filmed King's beating 23 years ago — before there was YouTube or Facebook. In Holliday's case, local, cable and network TV drove the video of King's beating to viral proportions with constant replays.
Moore, she said, "becomes a controversial figure because he exposed something that makes us have to question power. Would Freddie Gray's story be known without the video?"
"Or, let me ask if you could you conceive of a situation in Baltimore where the mayor would bring him in and give him a medal?" she continued. "Maybe not. But maybe he should have a medal. Maybe in history, two decades from now, we could look back and go, 'Hey, that guy really started something in Baltimore.'"
Smith, who is 65 and has deep Baltimore roots, is dismayed by the change she's seen in the city.
"Baltimore is very, very different than the city I grew up in," the MacArthur Fellow said.
"It looks like a very destitute place to me. You know, places that I went to see my aunt or places that I'd walk by on my way to church are now boarded up, and that's pretty extraordinary to me to see."
Smith described it as a "slow decline" over the years.
Her family, she said, moved from an all-black neighborhood "about 10 blocks down from Mondawmin Mall" to an integrated Forest Park that she remembered as "quite beautiful" when she was a teenager.
"But then over the years, it is my understanding, that people divided up those great big houses into apartments, and that whole area really went downhill," she said.
"Today, Baltimore is almost not recognizable to me."
Smith said she was shocked by what she saw on a cab ride in the spring from the Inner Harbor to her family's church on the west side. She was attending her brother's funeral.
"I hadn't been in Baltimore for some time," she said. "And I drove in a cab from my hotel, which was down by the harbor, to get to the church that we all grew up in, which was on Harlem and Warwick avenues," north of Edmondson Avenue.
Smith said she kept saying, "wow, wow, wow," as the cab drove past "street after street and block after block of boarded-up places and just, like, fields of bricks."
She said the "wows" increased in frequency "as I just kept passing corners where I could remember friends getting on the bus, and now it's just people standing around idly."
Finally, Smith said, the driver, whom she described as being "either Eritrean or Ethiopian, not born here, and appeared to be here very recently," turned to her and said, "What's the matter with you? Didn't you ever see 'The Corner'?"
Smith, herself a TV actor with recurring roles in "The West Wing" and "Nurse Jackie," declined to answer a question about the causes of Baltimore's decline. Instead, she nominated David Simon, the co-author of the HBO mini-series mentioned by the cabdriver, as someone better suited for the job.
Smith said her focus these days is on "why young people can't make it through school."
"My new play is about what's called the schools-to-prison pipeline," she said, noting that she has interviewed about 150 people, with more ahead. "I'm looking mainly at the ways that poverty infringes on the welfare of young people."
While she is willing to use the "schools-to-prison" shorthand, Smith said it is more accurate to call it "the poverty-to-prison pipeline."
Her thinking: "When you call it the schools-to-prison pipeline, it sounds like we're blaming teachers for something that is so much bigger than schools and teachers. So I've talked to judges, and kids who are incarcerated. I've been in schools, prisons, streets. I've talked to parents, I've talked to the chief justice of the state of California, mayors, a neuroendocrinologist, a psychiatrist, all kinds of people."
Smith said as bleak as the situation might seem to some, she is not depressed by it.
"I'm excited by it," she said. "What excites me about this problem is that there are so many different kinds of intelligence trying to attack it. That's thrilling to me."
Something else that Smith finds exciting is that after more than two decades, "Twilight" is being discovered by a new generation.
"There's been this 20-year gap since the Los Angeles riots, but high school students are now doing 'Twilight,'" she said. "There are some kids who just did it in Virginia. And a bunch did it in, of all places, the Princeton Day School."
The high school stagings speak to both her passion for education and some of her cultural goals for the documentary-style theater she popularized.
"In the case of my work, my whole goal was to have a forum where you're forced to not play yourself, where you're forced to experience somebody else," Smith said. "And the fact that they're doing that in these high schools — as cute as they can be, of course, and so proud of who they played — and it's not them. It's a white girl playing Jessye Norman, great opera diva."
More than two decades after Rodney King, Smith is still taking theatergoers into the skins and hearts and minds of other people — often very different from themselves.
This weekend, she's doing it on a stage six blocks up Calvert Street from the courtroom where the first trial in the Freddie Gray case is being held.
If you go
Smith will perform at 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. $30-$59. centerstage.org