BALTIMORE — Anna Deavere Smith, the award-winning actress and playwright, is talking about the moment she recognized a link between school discipline and high imprisonment rates for African Americans.
“I heard this story, it was about Baltimore, and it was about a kid who urinated in the water cooler and was going to be arrested,” she said. “Now, I get it: If I were the principal, I wouldn’t have been happy at all if that happened in my school. But arrested?”
“And everything clicked for me,” Smith said. “Rich kids get mischief, poor kids get pathologized.”
That moment in 2011 launched Smith on “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” the newest work in her body of “documentary theater,” in which she takes on a complex social and political issue, interviews more than 100 people with different perspectives and then portrays about two dozen of those characters, mimicking speech and gestures with uncanny precision.
She is performing Saturday and Sunday at Center Stage, about a half-mile north of the courthouse where a police officer is on trial for involuntary manslaughter, among other charges, in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from West Baltimore. Gray’s arrest in April was among several cases across the country that have raised questions about how police treat African Americans. It also spurred demonstrations and riots that set Baltimore on edge.
“It colors everything about this town,” said Smith, 65, who lives in Manhattan but grew up in Baltimore as the daughter of a city school teacher.
“I am a homegirl,” Smith said in “A Letter to My City,” which is part of the program for the show this weekend. “The inspiration for the project comes from Baltimore. I consider myself a daughter of the city and, more specifically, I consider myself a daughter of the teachers of this city and the public schools of this city.”
But the 1950s Baltimore of Smith’s childhood was starkly different from the city today, she said. “This city, which was once full of promise, shocked me with its boarded-up neighborhoods,” she said in the letter. “Doors and windows that were once open appear to be closed forever.”
Smith — the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Humanities Medal and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, among other honors — is hoping that her latest work will trigger more than just applause. She wants action.
To do that, Smith is experimenting with a new format. She performs for about an hour and 40 minutes and then stops the show to divide the audience into small discussion groups.
“I’m really trying to cause people to be active,” she said. “I would never sit here and tell you that art can change the world. I wouldn’t tell you that we are such great humanitarians ourselves that we’re going to change hearts and minds. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. But I’m willing to gamble this might prick someone to think differently out there or cause someone to think differently about a kid on the street they think of as a hoodlum.”
In the show, Smith performs the roles of four people who address Gray’s death and the aftermath. She portrays India Sledge, a teenager from West Baltimore; Allen Bullock, who is an 18-year-old protester accused of throwing a traffic cone through a car windshield and whose bail was set at $500,000; Kevin Moore, the man who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray; and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“The death of Freddie Gray is emblematic of how punitive our society has become,” she said Thursday during a break from rehearsing. “And, you know, I think the harsh punishment that we’re seeing in schools has something to do with that.”
At least 64,000 students were arrested at school in 2011-2012, according to incomplete federal civil rights data, the most recent available. Thirty percent of those arrests involved black students, though black students accounted for 16 percent of the overall student population.
School suspensions follow a similar pattern, starting early. Federal data show that of more than 8,000 public preschoolers who were suspended at least once in 2011-2012, about half were black; black students make up about 20 percent of the nation’s preschool population.
Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by zero-tolerance policies. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and are more likely to repeat a grade and enter the juvenile justice system, data show. More than 3 million of the nation’s 50 million K-12 students are suspended or expelled annually, a rate the Obama administration has called “staggering.”
Gray was frequently suspended and dropped out of high school, according to a 2008 lead poisoning lawsuit the Gray family filed against the owner of their rental home.
To create the show, Smith interviewed 150 people, including teenagers in youth detention facilities in California, a Philadelphia school principal, judges, and a renowned neuroendocrinologist.
She boiled down those interviews to perform about two dozen characters, a process she likens to making orange juice — squeezing out the essence. Smith performs on a sparse set, seamlessly inhabiting character after character with hardly a pause.
Last summer, she performed the show in Berkeley, Calif., and after Baltimore, she will take it to Philadelphia and South Carolina, where a school resource officer was suspended in October after a viral video showed him hurling a seated high school student across a classroom. On Dec. 9, she will host an event at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“I’m using theater to make a call about a moment of urgency that is real,” she said. “And every day in the course of this year, it gets more real. Turn on the television and there’s a video of a cop throwing a girl across a room. Every day it gets more real.”