BALTIMORE — Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is on Baltimore’s West Side heading toward her childhood house, where she lived until she was 15.She’s a little anxious, not sure of what she’ll find after all this time, all this trouble.
She has spent days riding past boarded-up buildings and crumbling people. So much, she says, is broken. Some of those shards eventually will end up in the latest play she’s researching.
The red SUV she’s in whizzes along West North Avenue, once a nerve center of a vibrant working-class community filled with black-owned businesses and families forging their way in an unwelcoming world.
She points out where she took the bus to junior high. The hairdresser was on this strip, along with her brothers’ barber. Her mother had a friend with a swanky boutique just off the avenue.
“I have good memories of that,” she is saying about the close community where she could walk to piano lessons and church, where neighbors knew one another and one anothers’ kids.
“All of these people hanging around in an idle way,” she says as much to herself as to anyone.
It’s early June, and Smith, 64, and her team, has been in town since mid-May interviewing people for a one-woman play on what she and others call the school-to-prison pipeline. Critics say zero-tolerance policies can suspend kids, disproportionately black and brown ones, over the most minor of infractions, starting as early as kindergarten. It sets them up for troubled futures. And too often, it means they go right from the classroom to the criminal justice system.
Baltimore’s schools have made some progress in recent years, officials say, though there’s plenty of work to be done. The four-year high school graduation rate was nearly 70 percent last year — but the state’s average is 86 percent. It’s overall suspensions have also showed some decline in recent years.
Smith has been traveling the country collecting stories for her project, “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education.” She’s home in a city that has become in part synonymous with murder, drugs, poverty, abject neglect and, more recently, riots over the death of Freddie Gray.
Her own youth in the ’50s was defined by legal and de facto segregation. And, yes, the city had poverty and crime. In her own community there was classism and color-struck politics. It was not perfect, but it sustained her and other children, and it was not the world that she sees now in parts of Baltimore and other cities.
So she’s been listening to stories of the trapped, and the triumphant, and those battling tirelessly — if too often obscurely — to make meaningful change. People like the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple AME Church, who preached Gray’s eulogy. Bryant will tell her: “Our children have been so reduced to the color of criminality that they can’t even be seen as children.”
Historically, Smith’s work has been built on her journalistic-style interviews, an uncanny gift at mimickry and a willingness to look at all sides of an issue. Smith disappears into each character, absorbing their words, their mannerisms and intonations. What audiences end up seeing is a community in conversation and conflict.
“It’s been said that I invented a kind of theater,” Smith has noted modestly on occasion.
She’s been at this for more than two decades. In the ’90s she took on racial strife with “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight — Los Angeles,” about the L.A. riots, which erupted after a suburban jury acquitted four white L.A. police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King. More recently, it was health care with her play “Let Me Down Easy.”
She’s recognizable from TV roles on recent shows such as “Nurse Jackie” and older ones such as “The West Wing.” But it’s her groundbreaking theater work that has earned her Pulitzer Prize nominations, a MacArthur “genius” grant and other honors, including the National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2012.
Smith lives in an apartment in New York, where she says people hardly speak to one another, and is spending time on the West Coast where she’s been workshopping the project.
She’s done this school-to-prison pipeline work in seven cities so far. Being home, she says, has felt like an archaeological dig, tracing the physical spaces of the first world she ever knew as she interviews officials, ministers, educators and young people, some of them incarcerated.
But if it is an archaeological dig, then the geography of home is internal, too, a land shaped by memory, and distance and time, but filled with the urgency of the present.
By the time she arrived in Baltimore in May, Freddie Gray, 25, was dead, his neck inexplicably broken while in police custody. Her city had become the latest example of the national problems surrounding race and policing. Finally, it was hard for anyone to continue ignoring the vast disparities that have festered for decades.
Looking at a brutally impoverished Sandtown — where Gray lived — and other areas across the city and country where people are walled off by unemployment, poor education, problematic policing and a host of other ills, leaves Smith toggling between head-shaking despair and what she calls “hope-aholism.”
And long before the Emanuel Nine lost their lives in a hail of gunfire during a Bible study in Charleston, S.C., she’d grown impatient with calls for a national conversation on race.
The woman who made a name for herself getting audiences to talk about race is now focusing on action, how to get people to help find ways to dismantle, repair, reconfigure — call it what you want — the structural machinery that has helped to grind so many black lives to dust.
Theater, she says, can help — even in a “small” way. When the lights go up, she wants audiences to stay and connect. She wants them in small groups in a room with the tools of brainstorming sessions — pen, paper, work boards and refreshments — meant to help spark ideas and creativity, and solutions.
Finding answers is the kind of work that will be waiting even if every Confederate flag in every corner of the country suddenly disappeared.
Listening to a young man during a visit to the New Beginnings juvenile facility in Laurel, Smith was most struck by what happened after the formal interview.
He was worried, he told her, about what’s ahead for him. If released, he had nowhere to go, no resources or options. He was even considering finding a way to get back into the criminal justice system, he told her.
A day later, Smith is sharing this with former Baltimore mayor Sheila Dixon, leaning in a bit as she speaks. Members of Smith’s team are nearby. So is a PBS camera crew. But the two women, sitting inches across from each other in folding chairs, may as well be the only two in the cavernous room at Center Stage, a theater downtown.
Families can be trapped in a web of problems, Dixon says, pointing to Gray’s own family as an example. (His mother had been on drugs at one point, she notes.) The solutions must be as layered.
Smith is steady, methodical. She starts every interview by asking her subjects to spell their name, the way many journalists do. More than 60 people will have been interviewed before it’s all done, and in September she plans to return to do two stage readings.
To say that her work is built on interviews though is like saying a Romare Bearden collage is made with pieces of paper and cloth.
The voices, the stories, our conflicts — and our bound destinies — are the thing.
The next night, the Center Stage auditorium is packed. For a second time, Baltimore residents have come to a town hall with Smith to talk about the state of their city. Crisis has a way of opening people up or shutting them down.
Baltimore feels wide open.
She and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill are talking onstage. Eventually they will take audience questions.
The aftermath of Gray’s death is a critical moment, a time to focus on articulating what Baltimore needs, Ifill is saying:affordable housing, transportation, education, jobs.
She used to listen to her father talk about the civil rights era and felt as if she’d missed everything, she told the audience. But this, she said, is one of those times, too, when 20 years from now people will be asking where were you back then?
“The idea of a movement is not that you sit and wait for this movement to happen. A movement is when you move,” she urges.
We are witnessing “a strangulation of childhood” for children of color, Ifill adds at one point, her words an echo of the Rev. Bryant’s.
Smith tells of hearing the story of a child facing arrest for urinating in a water fountain.
“Black children go to jail, white children have mischief,” she says. That’s the school-to-prison pipeline right there.
At some point she asks if any of the people she’s interviewed are present and to stand. About 20 people, black, white, young, old, stand up and are applauded. She points out individuals and talks about the good they’re doing on behalf of young people.
When the audience gets its turn to speak there seems to be more speeches than questions.
A local radio host talks about the digital divide and her neighborhood overrun with vacant houses.
A young man — who later says he’s 20 and describes once having been homeless for months — tells the audience of a proposal to turn vacant housing into affordable housing.
Several other young black men are in line, too.
Someone talks about the importance of self-respect.
Someone notes his neighborhood’s social isolation, gently pointing out that he’s never seen black middle- and upper-class people there. Not women like Ifill — and though he doesn’t say it, like Smith.
“I felt like I had to come home,” Smith tells her town-hall audience.
Her father, like his father, sold coffee and tea. Her mother was an educator in Baltimore public schools. Smith has talked before about memories of her mother tutoring kids in their home.
Education was about survival and striving, a way to provide armor for black boys and girls.
She is standing on the sidewalk in front of the house on North Bentalou Street. More than a half century ago her maternal grandfather stood on the porch and shouted to the white neighbors, “We’re here!”
Many white residents ultimately would leave.
The four-bedroom house where she grew up is empty these days and has a lockbox on the door, but from outside it appears to be in decent shape, like the other rowhouses on the street.
“It’s not boarded up — that’s good news,” she says.
She is the oldest of five. Her brother and other boys used to jump from the porch into the small front yard, a feat that once amazed her. When you are a child, everything is bigger, she says.
Back then the lawns were always mowed, and in the summer beautiful awnings covered the porches. On this afternoon the grass is uneven from house to house. Her family’s old yard is presentable.
Smith knows someone who still lives on the block, she says, then hesitates briefly before she heads a few doors up. She climbs the steps and knocks, a glint in her eye.
Sheila Wiggins, a retired computer science professor at Morgan State University and a childhood friend who is a few years older — and who taught Smith how to dance the twist — opens the door. She’s shocked to find Smith there.
She had seen Smith briefly at the recent funeral of Smith’s younger brother, but only to wave. Deaver Y. Smith III, 63, died in early April.
Smith and Wiggins hug, and soon they are locked in revery.
Some families are still around, says Wiggins, who can go almost house by house. A couple of folks are in their 90s. Many have died, of course, but several of the houses are owned by a descendant, a child or grandchild, or other relative.
They talk, too, about the alley behind the houses where they played and the cemetery that abuts it. Smith is eager to see it.
It’s in the world on North Bentalou that she first learned the power of stories and how to listen.
“If you say a word often enough it becomes you,” her paternal grandfather told her.
One Mrs. Johnson, who looked after the kids on the block, is prominent in each woman’s memory. She told stories and Smith, sometimes as the other children played, would sit with her.
Later, Wiggins would recall hopscotch in the alley, the rare rides in his van that Smith’s father sometimes gave the neighborhood kids, and how Mrs. Johnson, before she had trouble walking, took children to pluck berries from plants on the cemetery grounds.
Smith recalls elderberries. Wiggins, strawberries.
What is the most true is that they were there, black children, alongside the dead, harvesting the freshest of fruit.
After her family moved to another Baltimore neighborhood, Smith would ultimately go off to college, where her own passion for social justice grew. She landed in theater. And that, in the way life can be, brought her back to North Bentalou, where she is glad to see that the houses on her block are still standing; that they have endured.