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Anna Deavere Smith – Notes from The Field Tackles Issues Through Many Voices

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Notes from The Field Tackles Issues Through Many Voices 

by Brad Balfour

With a raft of accolades in her résumé, American actress/playwright/professor Anna Deavere Smith produces work that highlights the plight of the underclass, the unvoiced and those overlooked by entitled society. In her most recent one-woman production – Notes from The Field which opened November 2nd at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West 43rd Street) – the 66-year-old creator continues her fascination with what’s been called “documentary theater.”

Through a set of passionately expressed portraits – based on actual news events and her own interviews – Notes from The Field crosses generations and poignantly renders complex issues of race, disenfranchisement, mass incarceration and discrimination as something in our faces; it’s not just to be viewed through the gauze of electronic media.

Though these people aren’t necessarily making statements through their words, this veteran actress brilliantly brings to audiences these voices asking questions and, in some ways, demanding responses.

Interspersed with video footage, comic-book illustration back drops and Marcus Shelby’s on-stage cello riffing providing a robust yet subtle jazz-inflected lament, completes the effect that there is much more going on here than just one person on stage.

Somehow, just by changing her garb, vocal tonality or regional accent, Deavere Smith creates 17 unique portraits – with the help of director Leonard Foglia – that constantly question the powers that be.

Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Deavere Smith got an Acting MFA from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. After that, she went on to create numerous productions (Fires in the Mirror; Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; House Arrest; Let Me Down Easy; The Arizona Project), win a plethora of awards (a MacArthur Fellowship; the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show; a Matrix Award; The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, among others) and has been nominated for the Drama Pulitzer and two Tonys.

She’s been an artist-in-residence at the Center for American Progress, and has taught at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts as well as at NYU’s School of Law. From 1990 to 2000, she was a drama professor at Stanford University and had taught at Carnegie Mellon University.

However, this theatrical chameleon has not only made the stage her home; she has also done television (The West Wing, The Practice and Nurse Jackie) and film (Philadelphia, Dave, The American President, Rent, and Rachel Getting Married) as well.

In February 2014, “Anna Deavere Smith: A Young Arts Masterclass” was part of the HBO Masterclass documentary series. And Deavere Smith has published two books: Talk to Me: Travels in Media and Politics and Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts – For Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind.

In advance of her current show, she conducted this exclusive one-on-one shortly before previews began.

How did you get all these interviews down and select the characters who ranged from Congressman John Lewis to inmate Denise Dobson?

The job of selecting characters is always hard. I did over 250 interviews to get them. It’s a process of trying… I hate to call them characters, I like to call them portraits. I think of them as real people. Making an assemblage of them, bringing them into rehearsal. Hearing from the dramaturge. Hearing from the director. Hearing from other people around and then going home and writing a different play. Then bringing that one into rehearsal until I find out who’s going to work together. Because these fragments of things are people speaking in their real life.

Where does the journalism end and the creation begin? How did you draw the line between one versus the other?

I don’t really think of the things as “versus” in a way. [The author] Studs Terkel was a mentor of mine and his book [structured with interviews], Working, had a huge effect on me. It also became a Broadway show a long time ago, as you know. I always had been attracted to documentaries. There is something in truth that you can’t make it up. I believe people, when they express themselves, are making a kind of art. That’s one of the ways I pick who ends up on stage; people who are doing something really artistic just by nature of the way they move and express themselves.

What were your conversations like with the great civil rights advocate and congressman John Lewis?

I went to see John Lewis because I had heard he had gone back to Montgomery and the Police Chief made an apology to him for the things that had happened during the Civil Rights movement and had offered him his badge. As soon as I heard that I went rushing over to his office and he was kind enough to meet with me and a tape recorder and tell me the story.

How did you find the other people? How did you choose people such as NAACP legal counsel Sherrilyn Ifill and Freddie Gray beating videographer Kevin Moore?

It’s like selling Girl Scout Cookies. You knock on the door and somebody lets you in. They feel they like you because you’re a nice kid. They say, “The lady across the street likes the mint cookies, why don’t you go sell some to her?” You meet one person and they say you should meet that person or they introduce you to someone. Before you know it you went to a town with one lead and you have ten interviews before you leave.

Which character was the hardest to construct or edit and were the male characters harder than the female ones? 

No, it doesn’t have anything to do with that. I think about it as singing songs that people are composing as they talk to me. I wouldn’t say anybody is more challenging than another. Everybody deserves the attention that I and my coaches give them. I try to respect what they said to me.

Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith

Do you think creating work like this, which provided an alternative to conventional structured drama; have you changed the face of theatre in some way?

I wouldn’t presume to say [something like that…] You’d have to ask somebody else that. I wouldn’t say that about myself. People say I created a new form of theatre that’s now called “Verbatim Theatre” that I’ve been doing since the late ’70s. People do recognize that I’ve contributed something to the field in that regard. But I also… particularly in my teaching for 40 years and my book, Letters to a Young Artist, I hope that one of the things I do is give courage to younger people that try to do this. It’s very, very hard in any field in the arts to make a mark, as they say.

Selma director Ava Duvernay’s latest film, a documentary titled The 13th, complements your show. Have you seen it?

I saw Ava; I went to a screening of the show here in New York, and I was able to see her at the reception. I hope she can come to this show, I know she’s shooting something else right now. I would really like her to see it, I really admire her and her work.

How do you manage to avoid getting exhausted since you play so many characters in one intense two-hour plus performance every night?


Cooked or uncooked?

Both. [I like] kale and collard greens.

Do you think you can change people with a show like this? Maybe they will change the way they vote by having them see your show?

I don’t think any of us can change anybody, really. All we can do is make ourselves present and hope that maybe something rich happens by the fact that we’re in each other’s company. We all have mini transformations all the time.

Have you invited President Obama to one of these performances?

The President is well aware of this project. I had been invited to the White House to address a meeting of people doing work on school discipline. I’m not bothering the President or anyone around him right now, I think they have other things on their minds. But the President knows about the project.

Maybe they need to get some people down to see this before the election.

Once we get past this election I’ll do that, but otherwise I think they’re presently engaged.

Do you hope that the audiences that sees this will think about who they’re voting for?

I sure do. It’s a very critical time right now, I’m supporting Secretary Clinton. I stand for a lot of what she stands for. I stand for justice, I stand for kids, I stand for a country where more of us can strive to love one another, I’m for her. Secretary Clinton and President Clinton have seen another one of my works, Twilight Los Angeles, and I’m hope we’re able to get them here too.

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: November 4, 2016.

Photos ©2016 Brad Balfour.  All Rights Reserved.

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