Twi­light: Bal­ti­more, 2015

Anna Dea­vere Smith, back home to shut school-to-prison pipeline

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY MAR­CIA DAVIS

BAL­TI­MORE — Ac­tress and play­wright Anna Dea­vere Smith is on Bal­ti­more’s West Side head­ing to­ward her child­hood house, where she lived un­til she was 15. She’s a lit­tle anx­ious, not sure of what she’ll find af­ter all this time, all this trou­ble.

She has spent days rid­ing past boarded-up build­ings and crum­bling peo­ple. So much, she says, is bro­ken. Some of those shards even­tu­ally will end up in the latest play she’s re­search­ing.

The red SUV she’s in whizzes along West North Av­enue, once a nerve cen­ter of a vi­brant work­ing-class com­mu­nity filled with black-owned busi­nesses and fam­i­lies forg­ing their way in an un­wel­com­ing world.

She points out where she took the bus to ju­nior high. The hair­dresser was on this strip, along with her broth­ers’ bar­ber. Her mother hada friend with as wanky bou­tique just off the av­enue.

“I have good mem­o­ries of that,” she is say­ing

about the close com­mu­nity where she could walk to pi­ano lessons and church, where neigh­bors knew one another and one an­oth­ers’ kids.

“All of these peo­ple hang­ing around in an idle way,” she says as much to her­self as to any­one.

It’s early June, and Smith, 64, and her team, have been in town since mid-May in­ter­view­ing peo­ple for a one-woman play on what she and oth­ers call the school-to-prison pipeline. Crit­ics say zero-tol­er­ance poli­cies can sus­pend kids, dis­pro­por­tion­ately black and brown ones, over the most mi­nor of in­frac­tions, start­ing as early as kinder­garten. It sets them up for trou­bled fu­tures. And too of­ten, it means they go right from the class­room to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

Bal­ti­more’s schools have made some progress in re­cent years, of­fi­cials say, though there’s plenty of work to be done. The four-year high school grad­u­a­tion rate was nearly 70 per­cent last year, but the state’s av­er­age is 86 per­cent. Its over­all sus­pen­sions also have shown some de­cline in re­cent years.

Smith has been trav­el­ing the coun­try col­lect­ing sto­ries for her pro­ject, “Notes From the Field: Do­ing Time in Ed­u­ca­tion.” She’shomein a city that has be­come in part syn­ony­mous with mur­der, drugs, poverty, ab­ject ne­glect and, more re­cently, ri­ots over the death of Fred­die Gray.

Her own youth in the ’ 50s was de­fined by lega­land­de­facto seg­re­ga­tion. And, yes, the city had poverty and crime. In her own com­mu­nity there was clas­sism and color-struck pol­i­tics. It was not per­fect, but it sus­tained her and other chil­dren, and it was not the world that she sees now in parts of Bal­ti­more and other cities.

So she has been lis­ten­ing to sto­ries of the trapped, and the tri­umphant, and those bat­tling tire­lessly — if too of­ten ob­scurely — to make mean­ing­ful change. Peo­ple like the Rev. Ja­mal Bryant of Em­pow­er­ment Tem­ple AME Church, who preached Gray’s eu­logy. Bryant will tell her: “Our chil­dren have been so re­duced to the color of crim­i­nal­ity that they can’t even be seen as chil­dren.”

His­tor­i­cally, Smith’s work has been built on her jour­nal­is­tic-style in­ter­views, an un­canny gift at mim­ickry and a will­ing­ness to look at all sides of an is­sue. Smith dis­ap­pears into each char­ac­ter, ab­sorb­ing their words, their man­ner­isms and in­to­na­tions. What au­di­ences end up see­ing is a com­mu­nity in con­ver­sa­tion and con­flict.

“It’s been said that I in­vented a kind of theater,” Smith has noted mod­estly on oc­ca­sion.

She has been at this for more than two decades. In the ’ 90s, she took on racial strife with “Fires in theMir­ror” and “Twi­light— Los An­ge­les,” about the L.A. ri­ots, which erupted af­ter a sub­ur­ban jury ac­quit­ted four white L.A. po­lice of­fi­cers in the video­taped beat­ing of Rod­ney G. King. More re­cently, it was health care with her play “LetMe Down Easy.”

She’s rec­og­niz­able from TV roles on re­cent shows such as “Nurse Jackie” and older ones such as “The West Wing.” But it’s her ground­break­ing theater work that has earned her Pulitzer Prize nom­i­na­tions, aMacArthur “ge­nius” grant and other hon­ors, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Hu­man­i­ties Medal from Pres­i­dent Obama in 2012.

Smith lives in an apart­ment in New York, where she says peo­ple hardly speak to one another, an­dis spend­ing time­on­theWest Coast where she has been work­shop­ping the pro­ject.

Smith has done this school-to-prison pipeline work in seven cities so far. Be­ing home, she says, has felt like an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig, trac­ing the phys­i­cal spa­ces of the first world she ever knew as she in­ter­views of­fi­cials, min­is­ters, ed­u­ca­tors and young peo­ple, some of them in­car­cer­ated.

But if it is an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig, then the ge­og­ra­phy of home is in­ter­nal, too, a land shaped by mem­ory, and dis­tance and time, but filled with the ur­gency of the present.

Thenext act

By the time Smith ar­rived in Bal­ti­more in May, Fred­die Gray, 25, was dead, his neck in­ex­pli­ca­bly bro­ken while in po­lice cus­tody. Her city had be­come the latest ex­am­ple of the na­tional prob­lems sur­round­ing race and polic­ing. Fi­nally, it was hard for any­one to con­tinue ig­nor­ing the vast dis­par­i­ties that have fes­tered for decades.

Look­ing at a bru­tally im­pov­er­ished Sand­town — where Gray lived — and other ar­eas across the city and coun­try where peo­ple are walled off by un­em­ploy­ment, poor ed­u­ca­tion, prob­lem­atic polic­ing and a host of other ills leaves Smith tog­gling be­tween head-shak­ing de­spair and what she calls “hope-aholism.”

And long be­fore the Emanuel Nine lost their lives in a hail of gun­fire dur­ing a Bi­ble study in Charleston, S.C., she’d grown im­pa­tient with calls for a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion on race.

The woman who made a name for her­self get­ting au­di­ences to talk about race is now fo­cus­ing on ac­tion, how to get peo­ple to help find ways to dis­man­tle, re­pair, re­con­fig­ure — call it what you want— the struc­tural ma­chin­ery that has helped to grind so­many black lives to dust.

Theater, she says, can help — even in a “small” way. When the lights go up, she wants au­di­ences to stay and con­nect. She wants them in small groups in a room with the tools of brain­storm­ing ses­sions — pen, pa­per, work boards and re­fresh­ments — meant to help spark ideas and cre­ativ­ity, and so­lu­tions.

Find­ing an­swers is the kind of work that will be wait­ing even if ev­ery Con­fed­er­ate flag in ev­ery cor­ner of the coun­try sud­denly dis­ap­pears.

The cre­ative process

Lis­ten­ing to a young man dur­ing a visit to the New Begin­nings ju­ve­nile fa­cil­ity in Lau­rel, Smith was most struck by what hap­pened af­ter the for­mal in­ter­view.

He was wor­ried, he told her, about what’s ahead for him. If re­leased, he had nowhere to go, no re­sources or op­tions. He was even con­sid­er­ing find­ing a way to get back into the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, he told her.

Aday later, Smith is shar­ing this with for­mer Bal­ti­more mayor Sheila Dixon, lean­ing in a bit as she speaks. Mem­bers of Smith’s team are nearby. So is a PBS cam­era crew. But the two women, sit­ting inches across from each other in fold­ing chairs, may as well be the only two in the cav­ernous room at Cen­ter Stage, a theater down­town.

Fam­i­lies can be trapped in a web of prob­lems, Dixon says, point­ing to Gray’sown­fam­ily asanex­am­ple.(His­moth­er­wa­son­drugs atone point, she notes.) The so­lu­tions must be as lay­ered.

Smith is steady, me­thod­i­cal. She starts ev­ery in­ter­view by ask­ing her sub­jects to spell their names, the­way­many jour­nal­ists do. Morethan 60peo­ple will­have been in­ter­viewed­be­fore it’s all done, and in Septem­ber she plans to re­turn to do two stage read­ings.

To say that her work is built on in­ter­views, though, is like say­ing a Ro­mare Bear­den col­lage is made with pieces of pa­per and cloth.

The voices, the sto­ries, our con­flicts — and our bound des­tinies— are the thing.

The au­di­ence speaks

The next night, the Cen­ter Stage au­di­to­rium is packed. For a sec­ond time, Bal­ti­more res­i­dents have come to a town hall with Smith to talk about the sta­teof their city. Cri­sis has away of open­ing peo­ple up or shut­ting them down. Bal­ti­more feels wide open. She and NAACP Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund Pres­i­dent Sher­ri­lyn Ifill are talk­ing on­stage. Even­tu­ally they will take au­di­ence ques­tions.

The af­ter­math of Gray’s death is a crit­i­cal mo­ment, a time to fo­cus on ar­tic­u­lat­ing what Bal­ti­more needs, Ifill is say­ing: af­ford­able hous­ing, trans­porta­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, jobs.

She used to lis­ten to her fa­ther talk about the civil rights era and felt as if she’d missed ev­ery­thing, she told the au­di­ence. But this, she said, is one of those times, too, when 20 years from now peo­ple will be ask­ing, “Where were you back then?”

“The idea of a move­ment is not that you sit and wait for this move­ment to hap­pen. A move­ment is when you move,” she urges.

We are wit­ness­ing “a stran­gu­la­tion of child­hood” for chil­dren of color, Ifill adds at one point, her words an echo of the Rev. Bryant’s.

Smith tells of hear­ing the story of a child fac­ing ar­rest for uri­nat­ing in awa­ter foun­tain.

“Black chil­dren go to jail, white chil­dren have mis­chief,” she says. That’s the school-toprison pipeline right there.

At some point Smith askswhether any of the peo­ple she has in­ter­viewed are present and to stand. About 20 peo­ple — black, white, young, old — stand up and are ap­plauded. She points out in­di­vid­u­als and talks about the good they’re do­ing on be­half of young peo­ple.

When the au­di­ence gets its turn to speak, there seem to be more speeches than ques­tions.

A lo­cal ra­dio host talks about the dig­i­tal di­vide and her neigh­bor­hood over­run with va­cant houses.

A young man — who later says he’s 20 and de­scribes once hav­ing been home­less for months — tells the au­di­ence of a pro­posal to turn va­cant hous­ing into af­ford­able hous­ing.

Sev­eral other young black men are in line, too.

Some­one talks about the im­por­tance of self-re­spect.

Some­one notes his neigh­bor­hood’s so­cial iso­la­tion, gen­tly point­ing out that he has never seen black mid­dle- and up­per-class peo­ple there. Not women like Ifill, and though he doesn’t say it, like Smith.

Sweet home­NorthBen­talou

“I felt like I had to come home,” Smith tells her town-hall au­di­ence.

Her fa­ther, like his fa­ther, sold cof­fee­andtea. Her mother was an ed­u­ca­tor in Bal­ti­more public schools. Smith has talked be­fore about mem­o­ries of her mother tu­tor­ing kids in their homes.

Ed­u­ca­tion was about sur­vival and striv­ing, a way to pro­vide ar­mor for black boys and girls.

She is stand­ing on the side­walk in front of the house onNorth Ben­talou Street. More than a half-cen­tury ago, her ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther stood on the porch and shouted to the white neigh­bors, “We’re here!”

Many white res­i­dents ul­ti­mately would leave.

The four-bed­room house where she grewup is empty these days and has a lock­box on the door, but from out­side it ap­pears to be in de­cent shape, like the other row­houses on the street.

“It’s not boarded up— that’s good news,” she says.

Smith is the old­est of five. Her brother and other boys used to jump from the porch into the small front yard, a feat that once amazed her. When you are a child, ev­ery­thing is big­ger, she says.

Back then the lawns were al­ways mowed, and in the sum­mer beau­ti­ful awnings cov­ered the porches. On this af­ter­noon, the grass is un­even from house to house. Her fam­ily’s old yard is pre­sentable.

Smith knows some­one who still lives on the block, she says, then hes­i­tates briefly be­fore she heads a few doors up. She climbs the steps and knocks, a glint in her eye.

Sheila Wiggins, a re­tired com­puter science pro­fes­sor at Mor­gan State Univer­sity and a child­hood friend who is a few years older — and who taught Smith how to dance the twist — opens the door. She’s shocked to find Smith there.

She had seen Smith briefly at the re­cent fu­neral of Smith’s younger brother, but only to wave. Deaver Y. Smith III, 63, died in early April.

Smith and Wiggins hug, and soon they are locked in revery.

Some­fam­i­lies are still around, saysWig­gins, who can go al­most house by house. A cou­ple of folks are in their 90s. Many have died, of course, but sev­eral of the houses are­owned­bya de­scen­dant, a child or grand­child, or other rel­a­tive.

They talk, too, about the al­ley be­hind the houses where they played and the ceme­tery that abuts it. Smith is ea­ger to see it.

It’s in the world on North Ben­talou that she first learned the power of sto­ries and how to lis­ten.

“If you say a word of­ten enough it be­comes you,” her pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther told her.

OneMrs. John­son, wholookedafter the kids on the block, is prom­i­nent in each woman’s mem­ory. She told sto­ries, and Smith, some­times as the other chil­dren played, would sit with her.

Later, Wig­ginswoul­drecall hop­scotch in the al­ley, the rare rides in his van that Smith’s fa­ther some­times gave the neigh­bor­hood kids, and howMrs. John­son, be­fore she had trou­ble walk­ing, took chil­dren to pluck berries from plants on the ceme­tery grounds.

Smith re­calls el­der­ber­ries. Wiggins, straw­ber­ries.

Whatis the most true is that they were there, black chil­dren, along­side the dead, har­vest­ing the fresh­est of fruit.

Af­ter her fam­ily moved to another Bal­ti­more neigh­bor­hood, Smith would ul­ti­mately go off to col­lege, where her own pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice grew. She landed in theater. And that, in the way life can be, brought her back to North Ben­talou, where she is glad to see that the houses on her block are still stand­ing, that they have en­dured.

Anna Dea­vere Smith

PHOTOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

ABOVE: Anna Dea­vere Smith, left, in­ter­views Shelia Dixon, the for­mer mayor of Bal­ti­more, one of more than 60 peo­ple she is in­ter­view­ing about the prob­lems fac­ing her home town. RIGHT: Smith’s home­com­ing is filmed for a “PBS New­sHour” seg­ment on the Anna Dea­vere Smith Pipeline Pro­ject, for which she is do­ing re­search for one of her sig­na­ture one-woman doc­u­men­tary-style shows. BE­LOW: The Rev. Ja­mal Bryant, who de­liv­ered Fred­die Gray’s eu­logy, tells Smith that “our chil­dren have been so re­duced to the color of crim­i­nal­ity that they can’t even be seen as chil­dren.”

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