In “Notes From The Field,” Anna Deavere Smith Holds A Mirror Up To A Fractured America: BUST Interview

by Lydia Wang

In her one-woman play-turned-HBO film Notes From The Field, Anna Deavere Smith takes on the role of Kevin Moore, the deli worker known for videotaping Freddie Gray’s beating. As Moore, she says, “We gotta record this. [The camera] is the only weapon we have.”

“When you say that, what you’re saying is that [the camera] is a weapon that brings a mirror up to society,” Smith told BUST. “That’s what the camera is in the beating of Freddie Gray, and going back to Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the video of the young girl in her bathing suit in Texas, that awful year when we kept seeing these videos. These are mirrors.”

Moore isn’t the only role Smith plays in Notes, though. After conducting 250 interviews and sifting through over 300 hours of material, the Tony-nominated playwright, actress, and activist chose 18 different real-life individuals to embody in the project. These subjects include educators, students, and inmates. And using her camera as a weapon, society is exactly what Smith tackles: her film uses its subjects’ personal anecdotes, along with news and media clips, to shine a light on the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I always start with a very broad net, really trying to find out how the subject is being talked about,” she said. “My first interviewee was a man named Claude Steele, who was the Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, and then my next bunch of interviews were in Washington with the Department of Justice, just to get an idea: What is the school-to-prison pipeline? What is happening in schools?”

annaimage2 66f5dPhoto via Scott McDermott / HBO

Smith’s play Notes From The Field opened in late 2016 in Cambridge, M.A., and then immediately went off-Broadway, earning honors on best-of lists from Time and The New York Times. Though some of the subjects are well-known (think Bree Newsome,and NAACP Legal Defense Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill), others are everyday individuals impacted by the broken education system that fails underprivileged children in America.

“I came from education. My mother was a teacher, her sisters were, my mother’s friends were all teachers,” Smith said. “I think it’s something that I intrinsically understand, education, and I have an enormous amount of respect for it. I think for some people, it’s just a means to an end: you go to college, you get a certain GPA, and then you go get a job. My experiences were never like that. I see it as a fabulous part of the human experience, and in this case, the kids were just checked out. They get kicked out, or they’re just checked out.”

Though Smith has always known the importance of education, she started her work on Notes without much prior knowledge on the pipeline. “A philanthropist asked if I knew about the school-to-prison pipeline, and I didn’t,” she explained. “She wanted me to learn about it, because she felt that I would be able to use theater to draw attention to it.”

With HBO, however, Notes is taking on an entirely new platform and audience, although the premise and script stay the same. The movie was also shot on a soundstage, meant to resemble an intimate theater. “For me, it was mostly about going back again and revisiting the characters, and trying to make my performance better,” Smith said of the new film adaptation. “I’m also an executive producer on it, so I was able to have a lot of in-depth conversations with [director] Kristi Zea about her plans, and work very closely with the other executive producer, Gary Goetzman.”

annaimage3 db7f3Photo via Scott McDermott / HBO

Premiering March 13, Smith will also star in a new Shonda Rhimes courtroom drama, For the People (“I play the clerk of court—my job is just to whip everybody in shape”), where she’ll fight for change onscreen just as she does off.

“I remember there was a professor at Stanford when I taught there, who felt that part of her teaching was getting students to really understand what their question is. And if you have a question, it can keep you going, and it can keep you going in spite of what other people think,” she said. “Locate what your question is, not what somebody else’s is, and dedicate your life to it.”

Notes From The Field will premiere on HBO and affiliated portals on Saturday, February 24.

Top photo via Scott McDermott / HBO

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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