In The Mix

Justice Denied

“I want people to do something about this,” says Anna Deavere Smith of the issues raised in her new HBO film.

Ann Farmer
  • Scott McDermott

As a child, Anna Deavere Smith liked to mimic teachers and other authority figures — but only when they weren't looking.

"I never got in trouble," says the award-winning actress and playwright. She eventually channeled her talents into provocative one-woman, documentary-style plays. In these works, she impersonates an entire community in crisis — one character at a time — with the goal of drawing attention to it.

Racial inequality often figures in. Her latest work, Notes From the Field, zealously takes on the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels African-American and Latino students into the criminal justice system, thanks in large part to zero-tolerance policies and police presence in schools.

"With this play, I have more intention than anything I've done," Smith says. She performed it last year to sold-out audiences before adapting it into a film that premieres on HBO on Saturday, February 24, at 8 p.m. "I just hope more people get to see it," she adds. "I want people to do something about this."

Best known for her TV roles as national security advisor Nancy McNally in The West Wing and buffoonish hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus in Nurse Jackie, Smith was motivated to address this issue by an incident in Baltimore, her hometown.

A schoolboy had peed into a school water cooler, and the principal was going to have him arrested. "It blew my mind," Smith says. She viewed the boy's act as mischievous and hardly worthy of police involvement.

Employing her usual journalistic approach, Smith conducted more than 200 interviews on the prison pipeline subject. She spoke with people ranging from criminal justice experts to teachers and inmates, and eventually honed her script down to 19 monologues. Like a shapeshifter, she assumes the identity of each individual — right down to verbal tics — before morphing into another.

Smith was thrust into the spotlight almost 30 years ago with her play Fires in the Mirror. It masterfully portrayed more than two dozen residents — mainly black and Jewish — of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where racial polarization erupted into riots in 1991. For Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Smith similarly presented 36 testimonials on the racial turmoil that broke out there and then.

Notes From the Field is different in that there is no single calamitous event. Smith, instead, revisits many of the separate tragedies that have taken place across America in recent years. The arrest of Freddie Gray, who died as a result of injuries sustained during police transport, is told by a Baltimore deli worker (played by Smith), who captured the incident on his cellphone.

That video clip is included in the film, as are other gut-wrenching scenes, including an altercation in Dallas when an officer overreacted to a situation by yanking down and kneeling atop a 14-year-old girl in a bathing suit as she cried for her mommy. "Everyone who watches that tape is disturbed by it," Smith says. She found, in her research, that it wasn't uncommon for authorities to go after black girls for talking back.

Smith says when she was young, she was careful to avoid trouble. "I didn't run my mouth then," she says. "I do run my mouth now."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2018