Despite the gravity of the problem and growing attention on the issue, the discipline numbers continue to rise and continue to funnel children who already have it rough into a vicious cycle of low expectations, criminalization, and lifelong disenfranchisement and poverty. It’s almost as if a sense of apathy, or some other sort of disconnect, has hobbled efforts to address the pipeline beyond the isolated pockets where schools are actually rethinking student discipline. Maybe it’s the buzz-phrasey-ness of the term “school-to-prison pipeline.” Maybe it’s because the pipeline has become so entrenched that people feel there’s little they can do except give up. Maybe it’s because, as dire as the problem is, for privileged people it’s also incredibly abstract—something intangible that happens to faraway communities because of a foreign set of forces.
That’s what makes Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field, a production about “a justice system that pushes minors from poor communities out of the classroom and into incarceration,” so striking. As a journalist who’s written, read, and edited countless stories about the school-to-prison pipeline, I entered the theater anticipating an intensely artistic experience but not necessarily a dramatically educational one. Largely because of its language—the words uttered or not uttered, the movements made or suppressed, the way they those expressions were expressed—it turned out to be an intoxicating combination of both.
The play consists of vignettes, acted out exclusively by Smith and based, verbatim, on interviews with 17 people who’d somehow been touched by the school-to-prison pipeline. They include Allen Bullock, a young Baltimore protester dressed in a hoodie and kicks; Michael Tubbs, a popular Stockton, California, councilman who was recently elected the city’s mayor; Abby Abinanti, the chief judge of the Yurok tribe; Linda Wayman, the principal of Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia; and Congressman John Lewis. One of the most raw scenes featured Denise Dodson, a mother of six children, five of whom are alive. She’s been an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution for two decades; she was convicted of first-degree murder after her former boyfriend shot and killed a man who tried to rape her. Dodson spends much of her time in prison training dogs for people with disabilities. It’s a way, she explains, for her to show love.
I recently spoke with Smith about her experience researching for and performing the play, which recently ended its off-Broadway stint at Second Stage Theatre. A lightly edited and condensed version of our interview follows.
Alia Wong: How did you come up with the idea behind Notes From the Field?
Anna Deavere Smith: A woman named Ann Beeson, who was at the time the head of North American programs for the Open Society, told me about [the pipeline], and the Open Society had been doing a lot of work in that area. So she invited about 15 program officers from around the country to come to a meeting and they all told me these stories that were very concerning to me, and that's what got me interested. There was also the fact that among the people [at the meeting] were people from Baltimore, which was my hometown, and my mother and all her friends and most of my aunts were all teachers on both sides of the family and they had really changed lives. And I just had this refresher course about what was now going on in education many years later—and it should be better, you know? They were working prior to the civil-rights movement for equitable education, and to find out that things were worse than they were back during segregation was a great concern to me.