America's Mass Incarceration Crisis Begins in Its Schools

We spoke with Anna Deavere Smith about Parkland, the school-to-prison pipeline, and her new HBO film, 'Notes from the Field.'

Naveen Kumar

Image via HBO

When Anna Deavere Smith first started using the “documentary theatre” style of performance she pioneered—for which she interviews hundreds of people surrounding a particular subject and acts out excerpts from the transcripts—she trained her focus on riots that erupted from racial tensions in Brooklyn (Fires in the Mirror) and LA (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992).

More than 25 years later, the Pulitzer finalist and Tony nominee is a staple of drama curriculums, and America’s racial divide is as fraught as ever.

With her latest work, Notes From the Field, which premiered Off Broadway days before the 2016 election and has been adapted into an HBO original film released February 24, Smith presents a sprawling array of personal narratives surrounding the country’s school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the ACLU, students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system the following year; and black students are expelled at three times the rate of their white peers. In adulthood, black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, per the NAACP.

In Notes From the Field, we hear from people like Kevin Moore, who recorded Baltimore police loading Freddie Gray into the back of the van where he suffered fatal injuries. From Michael Tubbs, mayor of Stockton, California, who likens the resilience of the town’s poor young men of color to Tupac’s "The Rose That Grew From Concrete.” From Denise Dodson, an inmate of 23 years attending college in prison, who reflects on the choices she might have made had she been educated.

The film brims with insights from people on all sides of our country’s struggles with cyclical poverty, ailing and underfunded schools, persistent racism, and the endemic biases of criminal justice. The power of Smith’s piece, directed by Kristi Zea and intercut with doc-like footage of recent events, is the humanity it brings to systemic problems that can otherwise feel overwhelmingly vast.

In the wake of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the question of what to do about violence in schools has reached a boiling point. From her experience researching what ails America’s education system, I spoke with Smith about tackling massive issues on a human scale, how racial politics play into the current uproar over gun control, and where we go from here.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: The documentary theatre style of Notes From the Field really humanizes your subjects and connects them through your performance, is that a quality you find is missing from our national conversation on these issues?
Anna Deavere Smith: I would never presume to say that. I think if your interest in people and their individuality supersedes coming to snap judgements or your need, for whatever reason, to fight for one side, then that’s [going to come through].

The other night I was interviewed at a screening where I don’t think the interviewer really liked Tony Eady, the man in the movie who says, "A lot of kids get in trouble because of their mouth." He wanted to know, what was my reaction when I meet someone I don’t agree with? When I’m sitting in front of Tony Eady, what I hear is, first of all, a very deep resonant voice that I know I’m going to enjoy listening to while I’m working. I also loved the way he expressed himself; I loved the way he moved. That’s what I’m doing. So I don’t have time to go, "Oh, that’s not a good way to think about these kids."

We’re in the midst of another major uprising over gun control. From your experience speaking with parents, students and school administrators, how do you think the issue of gun control affects the school-to-prison pipeline?
I would talk about the availability of guns in what we call the inner city, the hood. And for that matter, in small country towns in South Carolina. People talk about gun control, but that gun availability is certainly in the cities for kids, not to [commit] mass murders, but it’s really a part of how they live. I think if you and I were joking around that, "Oh, we know the man or whoever is listening into this conversation"—if we believe we have major surveillance, how come they can’t get those drugs and guns off of these city streets? Who is proliferating the illegal guns? I don’t have an answer for that, but they’re there for sure.

Do you think because the guns in inner cities are illegal and off the radar, that that’s a separate problem?
I don’t think it is, but I don’t know. If I weren’t on this press tour right now, I would be calling around to get an answer to that question, because I’m very interested in exactly what you’re saying. I did call psychiatrists I know at Stanford the minute that Trump was talking about mental health and not gun control right after the shooting. They of course think it’s terrible that he would pull that out as a diversion. I do think this is an opportunity to really talk about mental health: 17 million kids in America need service, and only one third of them are getting help. I think it’s really a time to talk about all kinds of guns, not just mass murder weapons, but all kinds of guns that are in the hands of people who are under 21 and using them for something other than shooting deer or truly just defending themselves.

How does race—of the perpetrator, and of the victims—function in our conversation about gun control?
It doesn’t. The way we’ve been talking about race lately has been about this large power structure of institutionalized racism. If you think of it as a house, inside that architecture are the police, and they’re the ones who are carrying guns and billy clubs. So we think about race in relation to that power structure that’s keeping the people who are seen to be the least valuable in line. That to me is how we talk about [guns] with race. But this story of these kids in Florida, it’s not racialized in any way, do you think?

I just wonder if it takes white lives to recharge the conversation in this way.
Oh, that’s very interesting. Black Lives Matter was about black lives, and it was about one-by-one black lives. They were very successful at raising awareness and taking up some space in the newspapers and everywhere else about the black body in the grips of power. One racial aspect of the issue is the ways in which white supremacy seems to be aligned with mass murder. That this kid was supposedly affiliated in some way with white supremacists, and that Dylann Roof—I deal with the mass murder that he committed in Notes From the Field—that Dylann Roof went in and murdered people in Mother Emanuel Church under the banner of the Confederate flag.

So much of what you talk about in the movie, which I know you researched right before Black Lives Matter really erupted, seems to say that, systemically, the problem is we’re overlooking black lives—17 black people I’m sure have died from gunshot wounds in the days since we’ve been talking about Parkland.
I see what you’re saying. As a rhetorical matter, I don’t make a claim like that. I’m sure it’s true, but the reason I wouldn’t say it is that I would be concerned that it could appear to be belittling the tragedy at Parkland. I just wouldn’t do that right now, in this moment. That’s not the gesture I would use right now. I’m not a political leader, but I’m an educator and I stand up on the stage and try to stand for something, though it’s through metaphor.

If you were really looking for how can we think about [these issues] together, I would think for a long time. I would wait until the news has moved on to the next thing, and I would do a whole play that would be an inquiry about that.

What do you think we can look for and find hope in terms of our country’s direction right now?
I think many people are looking to these kids as a hopeful moment. And this could be considered maternalistic—but I worry about them. That they’ve been through this trauma and we’re expecting them to lead us, I worry about the toll that takes on them. We should be being the adults, we should be thinking of how to soothe them. They probably feel they have to be a part of all this media right now, but these young people were not prepared to be in a battle. It’s great that they’re stepping forward. I mean who am I to say? But I do worry, probably as an actor because I know for us, when it’s just fake feelings, how difficult it can be to be in public.

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