How Does She Do It?

Last night, my daughter (who is 17 and hopes to be a a teacher someday) and I attended Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show at the American Repertory Theater called "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education." It's an exploration of the school-to-prison pipeline that has become a part of 21st-century America. Last night's performance began with a Radical Welcome by Tommy Chang, who is the current Superintendent of Boston Public Schools. Each night, a different person provides the Radical Welcome to the show—framing the performance in a personal experience of education in this country.

Then Ms. Smith takes the stage, except that it isn't her. It's Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Baltimore; it's Kevin Moore, the person who videotaped Freddie Gray's beating; it's Steven Campos, former inmate of the Close Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, CA; it's Stephanie Williams, Emotional Support Teacher in Philadelphia. Ms. Smith interviewed these people and many others and then used their words—verbatim—to provide a comprehensive picture—a 360° view—of a problem that is discussed in the media, in Washington policy rooms, around kitchen tables, and in school districts across the country. In portrait after portrait,  Ms. Smith confronted us and challenged us to hear the voices of those involved in the school-to-prison pipeline. She doesn't simply deliver the words of these people; she inhabits their bodies. With minimal costume and set changes, she transforms herself from a Native American woman Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe to a male professor and psychiatrist at Stanford University to a black teenage girl who witnessed and filmed the brutal treatment of her classmate being body-slammed to the floor during math class.

Anna Deavere Smith is a wonder. Her performance is incredible. 

The portraits she creates comprise Act One of the program.

Act Two consists of each audience member adjourning to an assigned room with a group of strangers (though fellow audience members) to discuss their thoughts, reactions, questions, and experiences related to what they have just seen in Act One. Race is hard to talk about. Violence is hard to talk about. Systemic failure is hard to talk about. Educational impoverishment is hard to talk about. Hatred is hard to talk about.  I'm hear to say, it was all hard to talk about. We did the best we could, each knowing it wasn't nearly enough.

Then we returned to the auditorium for the Coda to the performance. Ms. Smith inhabited four more persons: James Baldwin, the poet; Sherrilyn Ifill, of the NAACP; Bree Newsmen, the activist who removed the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol; and Congressman John Lewis, Democratic Representative from the 5th District in Georgia. 

It was a remarkable night. Unlike any I'd ever experienced in a theater. Can art change the world? Yes. But an important step that must be taken for that to happen is for theater audiences to be more diverse. We need to fund programs—like the one that allowed so many high school students to see "Hamilton" on Broadway—so that more young people can attend performances like last night. So that more underprivileged people can attend performances like last night. So that when the audience adjourns to those separate rooms to have their self-led discussions, it isn't a roomful of older, white, well-educated, liberal, well-intentioned people who are struggling to talk about the performance we've just seen, knowing full well that we have little to add to the discussion. We need more and different voices in that room, and for that we need to take down the economic barriers that prevent some people from attending the theater. Fund the Arts Now.