Anna Deavere Smith has spent her career transforming. As an actor, she has the uncanny ability to slip seamlessly into another person’s skin, and then in an instant, with the mere removal of shoes or slouch of the shoulders, become someone completely different. As a playwright, she’s utilized that ability to transform theater. Her one-woman shows, such as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, take on complex social issues with documentary techniques and rigor, and they belong to a genre all their own — a feat which earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1993.
And, fittingly, her ultimate goal is to transform audiences. Her work inspires passionate emotional responses — outrage, empathy, sorrow among them — that she often supplements with interactive techniques. She might stop a play after its first act, as she did in early renditions of Notes From the Field, her most recent show about the school-to-prison pipeline, and ask audiences to reflect and then commit to working for positive social change.
Now, the question lying ahead for Smith is whether her work can affect audiences the same way when they’re watching it on a screen rather than live in a theater. This past weekend, a filmed rendition of Notes aired on HBO (it’s now available for streaming on HBO Go). In it, Smith plays 18 characters, each with a unique perspective — drawn predominantly from 250 interviews Smith conducted — on why and how so many of the nation’s poor, minority youth are being killed or filtered into American penitentiaries. Taken all together, these characters effectively depict the whole system.
Though the filmed adaptation of Notes does not include an interactive component, director Kristi Zea — best known for her work as a production designer on Hollywood films like Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs and Revolutionary Road — makes the viewer feel like they’re in the room with Smith and her many personages nonetheless. She lets the camera linger, cutting infrequently and subtly, mostly between closeups of Smith’s expressive face and medium shots of Smith set against immersive backdrops. You may not be called to action, but you’re moved to take some. Wondering how in the world Smith put such an ambitious production together and how she feels art can affect change, Mic dialed her up. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: What was the genesis of filming Notes?
Anna Deavere Smith: Jonathan Demme saw it on stage in New York and he immediately said he wanted to make a movie of it. And so he started sending everyone who could work on it. And then, as you know, he became quite ill, and he asked Kristi to step in as director, which she did. And then the entire team, who were primed to go and get to work on the movie, all stepped up to the plate.
Was there a specific vision he articulated to you about what he wanted to capture?
ADS: No. But he did ask me to watch two things, and I’m assuming that those two things were meant to inform me a little bit about what he may have been thinking about. One was his movie about Justin Timberlake’s tour [2016’s Justin Timberlake and the Tennessee Kids] and the other one was [2011’s] I’m Carolyn Parker, which is this beautiful, beautiful documentary about a woman who was building and rebuilding her house after Katrina.
What did you come away thinking after you saw those?
ADS: Just that they were beautiful films. And also with JT, the editor was going to be working with us — Paul Snyder, who was terrific.
Backtracking to putting the show together: You interviewed 250 subjects in every corner of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” What kinds of questions were you asking in the interviews?
ADS: It depended. I try to keep things as loose as possible so that the subjects can do more of the talking than me. I’ll tell you what I don’t do. I would never say to somebody, “What did you do? How did you get here?” I’d always ask a very general question, like “What happened?”
A lot of the people who do this work, other than the Native Americans, many of them are Christians. So towards the end of the interview I would almost always ask, “What would Jesus think?”
Did you get any interesting responses?
ADS: Well, what was interesting was nobody said, “What?” [Laughs.] Everybody took that question real, real seriously. “He wouldn’t be happy. He wouldn’t be happy.”
What other things did you come away from the interviews struck by or surprised by?
ADS: First off, I was on a journey to learn. It’s almost hard to think about how little I knew about the state of children in America when I began it because I had been so involved in the entertainment industry and in teaching artists. And I don’t have children, so I haven’t had the experience of putting a child through any kind of school.
So I was surprised at how bad some of the situations are; I was surprised at how many kids graduate from high school and cannot read; I was surprised at how easy it is for a kid to not be in the school system and to be in the drug culture; I was surprised at how it’s no big deal to say, “I was robbing people and stealing cars,” just like it’s what you do.
And I was very moved by the people who really are the ones — even in jails I found people like this — who walk with the folks who can’t make it, and no matter how many times they come back to jail, they’re there. I was moved by how many people are there helping at that level that we would call failure.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to read The Case Against Perfection, a book by a Harvard professor named Michael Sandel.
ADS: It’s a wonderful book that’s really about the investment in having perfect children. I interviewed him around 2005 about that book. If people could, they would have their children genetically modified to be smarter, prettier and stronger. The race to the top. You’ve got to have good SAT scores, better have plastic surgery before you come to college. And he thought it was a modern form of eugenics. I think certainly if you think of the whole notion of the 1%, that’s what that is, it’s the cultivation of perfection.
But what I met was people who were there trying to make the best of a very bad situation for people who otherwise are considered flat-out failures and have been pushed out of the system altogether. And you know what? I found a lot of love there that I don’t see around the perfect people. And it’s kind of amazing, really.
Was there anyone in Notes From the Field who was particularly tough to play?
ADS: I would say that the preacher makes a big vocal demand. Vocally, that’s no joke. I don’t know how he does that every Sunday. I had to do it every night when it was on stage and twice a day on the weekends. And because it’s so hard it can compromise everybody who comes after it just in terms of my voice being tired. I would say his was the most athletic in that way. Even though he’s standing in one place, it’s an athletic thing that has to do with breathing and that takes a lot of energy.
How did you find your way into the different characters?
ADS: I’ve been developing this technique for a long time — since the early ’80s, late ’70s and it’s really about going from the outside in. My job is less about what I feel and it’s more about what you will feel. And I guess then, in a way, I’m counting on what I felt when I was sitting across from someone, and I’m trying to elicit that feeling in you. And the only way I know how to do that is to be as accurate as possible to what the person actually said.
Did the way you look at the world bleed into the characters?
ADS: Well, that’s unavoidable, because as a person is talking and I am hearing them I’m translating it into how I look at the world. I think what might be a better question, if I may, is: What happens when I come up against somebody who looks at the world in a way that’s 360 degrees away from how I look at the world? And such a person would be young Steven Campos [a dishwasher and former inmate], who talks about a so-called “sexo,” a sex offender that he knew who put a baby in a microwave. I look at the world very differently than Steven Campos does, and in that case I don’t know that anything about me would be bleeding into that. But, having said that, he’s a fascination to me. He doesn’t believe that there’s anything such as trauma. He doesn’t believe in historical trauma. I do.
Beyond the actual audience members’ responses, what has your experience been in terms of art’s ability to affect change?
ADS: That’s what I’ve been working on very, very hard for my whole career, at least in the theater — wanting to present portraits of individuals who are a testament to our time. In other words, if somebody were to come upon this movie in the rubble 100 years from now and there was one slice, even just 30 seconds of one of the people I portrayed, they would be able to analyze something about our society and how we live right now. So I think that’s already political because it’s assigning myself and my sensibility to an era and to a time in history.
Also, since the ’90s, I’ve really done a lot of experimentation and raised money to support other artists who were actively doing work for social change — and also people who study with me often have that objective.
But I think now, this is a very remarkable moment. It started with Trump being elected, and I think it’s going to go into high gear given the tragedy in Florida. People are going to be making all kinds of art about the disarray in our country right now, the violence in our country, the violence in the world, the difficulty that people are having with the inevitable natural migrations all over the world. And, you know, violence — whether it’s violence against women, guns — is this the way we’re going to continue to live?
Obviously throughout history there have been very violent times, and times with many evidences of disrespect for human beings. And I think this is a moment where there may be a tiny quarter turn, where more and more people will believe they have an option [instead of] violence and death, and that option would be kindness and joy and giving and generosity. I think there’s going to be lots of art. I’m sure there’s kids right now writing poems, making sketches and singing and writing songs about Florida, just about that. I think it’s a dynamic time. And I’m excited about what’s going to happen, at least in the art world.