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How a MacArthur “genius” is using theater to fight inequality in Baltimore and beyond

Anna Deavere Smith appeared in this National Endowment for the Humanities video with NEH chairman William Adams before she delivered their annual Jefferson Lecture on April 16 at the Kennedy Center. (Video: via YouTube)

Long before her hometown exploded into rioting, Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith learned what marginalization looked like. As a child, she just didn’t have the words to describe it.

Growing up in 1950s Baltimore, the acclaimed actress and playwright remembers watching a schoolmate — a brilliant and beautiful girl she believed was destined for success — burst into tears at a pivotal moment in their lives. School officials were announcing who among them had been selected to attend the white schools, with their promise of greater opportunity.

“They didn’t pick her,” says Smith, now 64. “And I remember her crying. … This girl was the first star I met in my life. And I remember her sobbing. Because she knew. She was clearer about the stakes than me. She knew and she sobbed and sobbed.”

It’s a moment Smith says she hadn’t thought about in years. But it’s on her mind now because her latest project also deals with the subject of inequality in the nation’s schools so many decades later. The avant-garde performance artist and television star famous for her roles in “Nurse Jackie” and “West Wing” is creating a new one-woman show that addresses the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

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That’s the term for the disturbing national trend in which mostly poor African American and Latino children are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school, ultimately winding up in the criminal justice system.

Smith plans to visit Baltimore in May to conduct research for the pipeline play, in which she hopes to break new ground by not just provoking audiences to think, but by propelling them to turn those thoughts into actions in their communities. With red-blinking-lights urgency, she’s rolling out parts of her show before it’s finished as she tries to figure out the most effective way of engaging audiences.

The schools-to-prison pipeline is one of many problems plaguing Smith’s native city, which received national attention with the April 19 death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who suffered a spinal cord injury in police custody. Six Baltimore police officers were charged in the incident following days of rioting and unrest.

The pipeline, which Smith first turned her attention to in 2013, is ripe material for the Tony Award nominee and MacArthur “genius” whose arresting one-woman plays navigate the nation’s racial and socioeconomic fault lines.

In the early ’90s,  Smith took on racial strife with performances on the riots in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the violence in Los Angeles after the police beating of Rodney King. Audiences sat rapt as Smith vanished into the monologues she’d collected from her interviews with regular people from different perspectives. A rabbi in Brooklyn. A Korean shop owner in Los Angeles. More recently, she embodied an ailing patient in her one-woman play on the nation’s health-care crisis.

“Art is not a shopping mall. It is a convening place where a citizenry becomes more engaged and active,” ” says Smith, who tried out some of the pipeline monologues in Los Angeles last month while performing “Never Givin’ Up,” based on Martin Luther King. Jr.’s 1963 letter from a Birmingham, Ala., jail.

The right to an education is the nation’s fifth freedom, Smith says, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson, who was adding to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 list: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

“I just can’t imagine how we could be able to keep our position in the world if we really believe we can throw people away,” Smith says.

She envisions dividing audience members into smaller groups after her performances, in rooms where there would be pens and yellow pads, idea boards and a lot of discussion among strangers about how to tackle the crisis.

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There’s a lot of work to do, according to federal data. Overzealous discipline can start as early as preschool, according to the Department of Education’s civil rights division.

For example, black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension. In comparison, white students, who make up 43 percent of preschool enrollment, account for 26 percent of repeat suspensions.

Boys of all races are particularly vulnerable. They make up 79 percent of preschool children suspended once and 82 percent of preschool children suspended multiple times, even though they represent 54 percent of preschool enrollment.

Smith knows hers will be a small contribution to solving the problem. She’s not an activist per se, she says, but something between a “hopeaholic” and pragmatic artist and facilitator.

Even so, she believes strongly that words can transform. It is a belief rooted in an eclectic blend of patriotism, theater training and lessons from her childhood as the daughter of an elementary school principal and coffee merchant in Baltimore’s middle class.

She connected those dots for a full house at the Kennedy Center last month when she visited Washington to deliver the 44th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. The lecture is the federal government’s highest honor in the humanities. Smith performed several pipeline monologues as part of the evening.

The show is a continuation of her decades-long work entitled “On the Road: The Search for the American Character.”

“If you say a word often enough it becomes you,” she told the Kennedy Center audience. That’s what her grandfather used to tell her when she was growing up, she said.

His words resonated again when her acting professor gave the class an odd assignment: Take 14 lines of Shakespeare and repeat them over and over until something happens.

“I sort of did exactly what she said and spent many hours saying these words over and over again and I actually saw this apparition of a figure who I thought was Queen Margaret,” Smith says, recounting the story she told the Kennedy audience.

No, she wasn’t chemically impaired. And no, it never happened again. Ultimately, though, it helped lead her to her methodology. Rather than working with written words, she sought the words of individuals, listening and watching for what happened to them as they spoke — their inflections, the movement in their eyes, their hands.

Smith began her career as a performance artist with the question: “What is the relationship of language to identity?'” Now she poses a related question: “What is the relationship of speech to action?”

“Because that teacher who asked us to take 14 lines — her whole idea was speech as an action, of course meaning dramatic action,” Smith said. This begets yet another question: “What is the relationship of art to action?”

“I was told that this is a country that talked and wrote itself into existence. And so I have a belief that the people can do that. That we can talk and write ourselves out of this problem.”

She’s already engaged in at least one post-show discussion as she experiments with audience dynamics. It missed the mark, she says, turning into a version of what she’s seen so many times — where some people ask questions, others testify and everyone leaves still disconnected.

She’ll be experimenting this summer at a Berkeley, Calif., theater, which will have the sort of meeting space she dreams about and even a staff person to help think about how to effectively engage audiences.

The woman who rocked the country with insights on race still cares about race, but she has come to see more facets to the problem.

“I think the movement, the action is towards — again, because of speaking Dr. King’s words in front of an audience these last two nights — racial and economic equality, racial and economic justice.”

Art, she says, has a role to play and she wants other artists to join the effort. Her generation spent their careers advocating for the building of new art spaces, she says.

Her question to her colleagues, she says, “is now what are we going to do with them?”