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Anna Deavere Smith’s ‘Notes From the Field’ looks at school-to-prison pipeline and more

Anna Deavere Smith in HBO’s “Notes From the Field.” (HBO)

“Notes From the Field” is an acclaimed one-woman play by the award-winning writer and actor Anna Deavere Smith that delves into the United States’ school-to-prison pipeline, its inequitable justice system and its struggle to adequately address issues of class and race. Now it is set to reach a wider audience through an HBO production, premiering Feb. 24.

Smith talks in the following Q&A about her project, which entailed interviewing some 250 people around the country and spotlights 18 people she interviewed, starting in 2013. They include Kevin Moore, a Baltimore deli worker who happened to videotape the 2015 police beating of Freddie Gray as they dragged him into a van; Niya Kenny, a high school student in Columbia, S.C., who videotaped a sheriff’s deputy slamming a 16-year-old girl on the floor; and more well-known figures, such as civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Q) What is “Notes From the Field” about and why did you choose this subject to write about — the school-to-prison pipeline?

A) “Notes” is about kids who can’t get through school, who get pushed out of school for disciplinary reasons. When you’re not in school, you are in trouble and you end up in juvenile hall, and then in various circles of incarceration. Data collected by the Justice Department in the Obama administration showed that black, brown and Native American kids are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts and that these strict disciplinary tendencies lead them to be expelled and suspended more often. And I looked at that against the background of what began to look like in 2014 a new civil justice, civil rights movement, based largely on the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and others. But I was also hearing a lot about education as a potential background for the civil rights movements.

It seems to me that right now, it is really a moment for many Americans, including the students in Parkland, [Fla., site of a mass shooting at a high school on Feb. 14], who are asking about the investments this country makes. Are we going to invest in schools or prisons?

Q) How did you go about researching the subject, and did anything surprise you?

A) I did 250 interviews in four geographic areas of the country. I didn’t know anything about the school-to-prison pipeline, so it all surprised me. I had to open up my learning curve about that. Everything I began to hear, including the language, was new to me. For example, I didn’t anticipate that, as I looked at school discipline, I would learn things about trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences scores, stress, how poverty affects not only emotional development but also cognitive development.

I was surprised that people working on this issue range from Abby Abinanti, the chief judge of the Yurok tribe, who is one kind of jurist; to Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the state of California; to a neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, who is studying in his lab what sort of interventions might work.

And I also didn’t expect to be in a world where you have, on one hand, activists who would say that all these things are about structural racism, and on the other hand, Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller, who is looking at it through the lens of biology. And of course, the kids themselves.

I have to say it was an extraordinary tapestry that I saw. Because there are so many diverse voices out there addressing it, whether it is a kid who I talked to in a juvenile facility or whether it is a jurist or a teacher or a principal, or a philanthropist like Agnes Gund, who you probably read about. She sold a [Robert] Rauschenberg painting for $165 million to spend that money on a fund to support art and social justice.

So I have a very high level of excitement and hope about what can come out of this moment.

Q) What about the Trump administration and its approach? Approaches such as restorative justice aren’t at the top of its list.

The news changes all the time, but there are people out there working on this all the time. We have a new administration looking at it in very different ways, and a new secretary of education. … I’ll just say that I believe in the Obama administration, we had a sense of an administration that had … kindness and compassion running through it.

In terms of racial equity, these matters have been with us forever. … Jefferson lays out a plan for public education which will find the excellent ones and get rid of, and I quote, “the rubbish.” From the beginning, the idea was to have schools as a sorting mechanism. As we have become more complex in our world and more technological, that sorting mechanism just doesn’t work for a lot of folks.

And it’s funny, the sorting mechanism has gotten more and more intense at the same time. The sorting mechanism for excellence has gotten more intense and the sorting mechanism for failure has gotten more intense.

When my late mother — who even in her death has been a big inspiration for me in this project because she was a teacher and all her friends were — taught, she didn’t believe there was such a thing as a non-reader. She taught sixth grade and was committed to making sure that nobody would leave her sixth-grade class without reading. I remember this 13-year-old boy sitting around our table learning to read.

It’s odd that these sorting mechanism have become more sophisticated but they don’t really help people. They pathologize the people who can’t make it. They privilege the people who can, those who Michael Sandel wrote a wonderful book that I looked at for my last play, “Let Me Down Easy,” called “The Case Against Perfection.”

So while too many American children are failing, being pushed out dropping out, a whole bunch of others are being pushed toward superhuman excellence. If these parents could figure out a drug to make their kids more beautiful, faster, smart, they would; because the competition to get into these colleges is so great. So I don’t think this has served anybody, honestly. I think this has corrupted what learning is.

I am learning. That’s the only thing I can do well. I can learn things. I can spend my life learning.

Q) If you had the power to make changes to address the school-to-prison pipeline, what did your research tell you that should be?

A) I wouldn’t be a good policymaker, and I hope that “Notes From the Field” is a mating call to people who do make policy.

For example, I recall I invoked the name of the chief justice of the Supreme Court of California. I’m an actor. She really wanted me to come and speak to a conference of judges from all across the United States. She probably thought that a person like me, who is trained to move hearts and minds, has something to offer her. Well, she would be a fantastic person to be at a roundtable about policy. I understand my limitations.

This play is meant to be what it is, a film, a work of art that I hope will excite people who have different resources and different kinds of abilities than I do to make a difference.

There is this one thing that is different about the United States of America. I said before I went to four geographic areas and did 250 interviews. Police officers, in and out of jails, probation officers, intellectuals, physicians. Almost nobody ever used a word that I think is really important and that I did see at my mother’s dining room table: love.

But when I went to Finland, which at the time was said to have the best education system in the world, I met the equivalent to our secretary of education, and she was using the word “love” a lot. I said, “Wow, I never heard anybody use that word in the U.S. when talking about this.” … They just looked at me like I was crazy.

How can you talk about education if you don’t use the word “love”?

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a Rockefeller University neurobiologist. His name is Bruce McEwen, not Bruce McKewan.