Anna Deavere Smith is much more than an actress who has been in TV shows such as “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie” and films such as “Dave” and “The American President.” She is a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She is a playwright known for works such as “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Fires in the Mirror.” She has won countless awards.
For the last several years, Smith has been performing various versions of her one-woman play “Notes From the Field,” which in her words is about the “school-to-prison pipeline” and other issues involving race, education, the police, and justice.
“It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system without talking about education,” Smith says during the show. (Though she is portraying someone else at the time, as explained below.)
On Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern time (check local listings), HBO will air a film version of “Notes From the Field” directed by Kristi Zea, with Smith among the producers.
The pay-cable version will give a national audience the chance to watch a tour de force show that theater audiences in Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, South Carolina, and off-Broadway in New York City have experienced.
In most of those versions, which have varied and been tweaked along the way, the subtitle was “Doing Time in Education.”
The 67-year-old Smith conducted 250 interviews as research for the show, from policy experts and lawmakers to teachers, administrators, students, and those who have encounters with the criminal justice system. (A few years ago, while attending the Education Writers Association conference at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., I was surprised to encounter Smith in a breakout session. Folks at EWA tell me that Smith attended because there was a discussion about the school-to-prison pipeline but stayed for other sessions, showing her dedication to research on the issues.)
Smith plays the people she interviewed in the show, acting out her subjects’ words with some minimal wardrobe and staging elements and a changing video backdrop. Musician Marcus Shelby is on stage with Smith, playing a stand-up bass to provide transitions between scenes and sometimes reacting to Smith’s characters.
In the stage version, Smith sometimes performed for some 90 to 100 minutes before involving the audience by breaking people up into small discussion groups. That element is not depicted in the HBO film.
The film opens with the 2015 Freddie Gray incident in Baltimore, about the young African-American adult who the police detained and drove roughly around the city in a police van. Gray died from the injuries he suffered, resulting in a wave of civil unrest in the city.
Smith is soon off to California, portraying a Native American fisherman of the Yurok tribe near Klamath, Calif., who was kicked out of multiple schools before ending up in the custody of the California Youth Authority.
And then she takes us to South Carolina, portraying a “student concern specialist” at a Charleston high school. “It’s a constant fight every day, trying to get these kids to do the right thing,” Smith says as Tony Eady, the specialist.
Next is video of the white South Carolina police officer who was captured on cellphone video violently pulling a black high school girl from her classroom chair over a small rules violation. Smith becomes Niya Kenny, a classmate who shot the video that went viral and also was arrested by the officer. (A prosecutor declined to file charges against Kenny.)
There are other education-related scenes in this 90-minute version of the show, though Smith closes with a spot-on take of U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights pioneer, who recounts an incident of a Ku Klux Klan member who had participated in beatings of him in the 1960s coming to his office decades later to apologize.
That scene is among the most powerful in a show full of poignant and moving depictions. “Notes From the Field” would undoubtedly be a show best experienced in the theater, but the HBO show is the next best thing.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.