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Anna Deavere Smith is tackling another of America's toughest topics. She's written another stage production challenging audiences to think. She's known for her work on television, in shows like "The West Wing" and "Madam Secretary." She is also known for documentary-style theater productions that examined integration in America, riots in New York and Los Angeles and the complexities of the U.S. health care system. Her latest examines the school-to-prison pipeline. It's called "Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education." NPR's Michele Norris sat down with Anna Deavere Smith to talk about it.
MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Long before she made a career out of performing people's real-life stories on stage, Anna Deavere Smith discovered her gift for mimicry. As a kid growing up in Baltimore, she could nail people's speech patterns and physical traits.
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: I did mimic the teachers in elementary school and high school. I couldn't catch a ball or run very fast. But this was how I got approval from my peers, is making fun of the teacher.
NORRIS: Those schoolyard antics have evolved into the core of her career, using her voice to give voice to people caught up in some of America's thorniest issues. Anna Deavere Smith's stage work tends to follow a pattern. She takes a controversial subject, researches it, interviews scores of people on all sides and then creates a one-woman performance by becoming those characters.
DEAVERE SMITH: When I sit with somebody who is trying to explain to me how their world is upside down, the course of that hour, they usually are using language to restore their dignity. And they manage to turn it right side up. And I find that to be very, very satisfying.
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DEAVERE SMITH: (As India Sledge) When that Freddie Gray was going on and a lot of stuff was going on, my boyfriend Jake was near - just walking to the store. And the police jacked him up and threw him against the wall for no reason, checked him for no reason.
NORRIS: That's Deavere Smith in a stage performance. She's portraying India Sledge, a woman who lives in the Baltimore neighborhood that broke out in riots earlier this year.
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DEAVERE SMITH: (As India Sledge, impersonating police officer) Why are you standing on the corner if you're not selling drugs? Why are you just going to be hanging on the corner - just hanging?
NORRIS: On stage, Anna Deavere Smith takes on not just the voice but also the person's physical tics. She seems to grow taller or thinner or younger without makeup or elaborate costumes. It's all in how she uses her voice and her body. And while she's examining other people's issues, she's admittedly working through some of her own.
DEAVERE SMITH: What I'm trying to do is to get over what happened to me in segregation, you know. De facto segregation, Baltimore, Md., you could easily feel like you don't belong - left out. And I decided the way I would get rid of that feeling is to try to experience everything that I'm not, to see if I therefore could feel woven into this very complex and beautifully diverse fabric that we call the United States of America.
NORRIS: Anna Deavere Smith grew up in Baltimore, where her mother, her aunts, many of her neighbors were all educators. The fabric of her early life was based on high standards, hard work, a solid support system. In "Notes From The Field," she wanted to understand a world where young people had none of those things. The project began almost two years ago. It has landed on stage at a moment when people in city after city are rising up against police violence aimed at black men and where prison reform is gaining bipartisan support.
DEAVERE SMITH: We don't have to look very far to see the relationship of school to the fact of mass incarceration - thank goodness. The entire country seems to be coming aware of that tragedy.
NORRIS: This production looks at the roots of the prison pipeline through a series of monologues from teachers, inmates, protesters, professors - all, again, played by Anna Deavere Smith. Taken together, these stories reveal that the path to prison can begin very early, through preschool suspensions, by warehousing students in special education or from kids who can't imagine a world where they feel safe. One character, Michael Tubbs, drives home that point. He is a city councilman in Stockton, Calif..
DEAVERE SMITH: He's a very impressive young man, and I met him in Stockton. He graduated from Stanford. His father has actually been incarcerated for his whole life.
NORRIS: Deavere Smith, while in character as Tubbs, relays a story about the day he visited a local school to read to first graders.
DEAVERE SMITH: (As Michael Tubbs) And I was reading about Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. And I got to the point where he was assassinated. I tried to go through the page really quickly because I really didn't want to talk to 6-year-olds about death. So I try to turn the page really quickly, and one little boy raises his hand. Mr. Tubbs, my uncle got shot. And then another little boy said, Mr. Tubbs, my cousin got shot. Before I could turn the page, every student in that classroom knew somebody who'd been shot or was a victim of a violent death.
NORRIS: Every first grader in that classroom - every single one - had been touched by violence. In the monologue, Tubbs tells the audience that he was in tears. The teacher was in tears. And a lesson for him was painfully obvious.
DEAVERE SMITH: (As Michael Tubbs) What life is this, when I can't see past 18 - just want to be alive at 25? And it's just so heartbreaking - prison or death? There's really no other opportunity for boys and young men of color in Stockton - prison or death.
NORRIS: What do you want people to do after they meet these characters?
DEAVERE SMITH: More than in any play I've made - and I've made 18. More than in any other play, I want them to do what they can do. If they can write a check, I want them to write a check. If it's going to affect how they vote, I want it to affect how they vote. I want them to do something. Or I want them to tell people who can do something.
NORRIS: "Notes From The Field" is a work in progress. Anna Deavere Smith is still doing research, interviews, finding characters to fill in this story. She's already performed the monologues in California and in Baltimore. Her next stop is South Carolina. For NPR News, I'm Michele Norris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.