Anna Deavere Smith Hopes to Disrupt the System Through Conversation
BY OLIVIA ARMSTRONG
Anna Deavere Smith of Notes From the Field and Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor to President Obama, anchored a panel moderated by Van Jones (The Van Jones Show) to discuss the HBO Films adaptation of Smith's one-woman show, and its focus on the school-to-prison pipeline. The conversation at the 92Y cultural center covered the topics of mass incarceration, teen protests, and how empathy and visibility can help ignite change.
Here, the most optimistic outlooks from the conversation.
A national conversation is brewing.
Through Notes From the Field, which features Smith embodying 18 individuals affected by and committed to changing broken systems like the school-to-prison pipeline, she hopes discussions will permeate even further now that the one-woman show is a film.
Smith believes the power of theater can expand outward: “I've always been interested in the potential of audience interaction,” she offered. “Now more than ever, I believe arts and institutions can be convening places to facilitate these conversations.”
In order to break the cycle, we have to understand the cycle.
Smith and Jarrett agreed that when young people are pushed out of the classroom and into detention centers or jail, it has a ripple effect that negatively impacts our economy and faith in the justice system. The same goes for non-violent offenders.
“We jail 11 million people a year in the U.S. They stay an average of 23 days. Yet, only 5 percent are ultimately convicted of a greater offense.” From a public policy stance, Jarrett asserts, this is costly, especially for those who “are guilty of being poor” and simply can't meet bail.
Anna Deavere Smith produces, writes and performs her award-winning one-woman show turned HBO Film in Notes From the Field. Check out the trailer before you watch.
Teenagers are taking charge.
The conversation shifted to the Parkland school shooting, the upcoming March for Our Lives protest, and the Stoneman Douglas High School survivors demand for change. “Breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs,” said Jones. The panelists admired the students' courage in speaking up after the shooting: “They were articulate; they were passionate; they were fearless,” said Jarrett. “And we better watch out because they are coming to our rescue.”
Empathy is key to change.
Jones asked Smith why she chose to take the hard road by taking the conduct 250 interviews to embody the 18 different characters in Notes From the Field. “You could hire people and send them out,” Jones pointed out. “Why do you do it so intimately?” After taking a beat to think it over, Smith addressed the audience:
“There's nothing like sitting in front of a person in the midst of a struggle and getting that verbal acuity… It’s about making a huge archive of interviews to try and understand the matter on all different levels.”