Everyone has a voice, but not all voices have platforms to be heard. It has been Anna Deavere Smith’s life work to share these voices and their stories with the rest of the world. The Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee is bringing her extraordinary one-woman show, Notes From the Field to HBO. Ahead of the film’s premiere, we sat down to chat about this masterful work and why she was so compelled to tell these truths.
Smith began exploring the school to prison pipeline – which forces underprivileged minority children out of classrooms and into jail cells — years ago. However, over the course of her research, the playwright discovered that there was much more to unearth. “It’s much more than just that,” she explained earnestly. “Very early on I saw that many of the teachers who I met were people that were working very hard with not a lot of resources. Also, there are a lot of things in the bureaucracy of schools because of test scores and data that took up a lot of time and didn’t really allow people to focus on children as whole beings. If that hadn’t been the case, we wouldn’t have lost art and sports in poor schools in the way that we did. This is not just about schools, it’s about poverty in general and I hope that are things in the movie that help make that clear to us. For example, Mayor Michael Tubbs talks about how his girlfriend came to visit him in Stockton and she wanted an apple, and he couldn’t find anywhere to buy her one. We know that a lot of poor communities are food deserts.”
Years of research went into Notes From the Field and out of hundreds of interviews, Smith brings approximately eighteen voices to life. Though no one story is better than another, these were the voices that spoke loudest to the professor as she began crafting the original play. “The bulk of the people who are in the movie are also who were in the play,” she explained. “With all of my plays I have a lot more material than I can ever use. I usually do more than 200 interviews, and this is about the eighteenth play I’ve made this way. I’m gonna come to the rehearsal hall with a play that’s way too long, and then I actually use the process of performing and rehearsal to start to hone it down. I’m usually rewriting the play every single night during rehearsal and coming back with something new to show the director in the morning. It’s trial and error.”
Smith, who is no stranger to the screen or the stage has worked on massive projects like this one before including her 1992 play Fires in the Mirror and her ’94 stunner, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. With so many years in the business, I wondered if Notes From the Field in particular, and at this present time changed the way she viewed herself as an artist. “That’s a really artist sensitive question,” Smith said quietly. “I just hope that every time I go out there, I’m better. I hope that I’m a better interviewer than I was a long time ago. I hope I’m better at picking what should be in the play. I certainly hope that I’m a better performer and that’s just accruing experience over time. I just hope it pays off. Every single work that I make is an opportunity of really honing down my own process because I did create a process through which I work. Nobody taught me this process. I had to teach myself how to work, and I had to teach the people who were working with me how to work. I always treasure the chance to make it better.”
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