‘Doing Time in Education’ with Anna Deveare Smith at Aspen Ideas Festival

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Anna Deveare Smith photographed Sunday morning in Greenwald Pavillion. The actor will perform "Notes from the Field" on Tuesday at the Aspen District Theatre.
Aspen Institute/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: ‘Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education’ by Anna Deveare Smith, presented by Aspen Ideas Festival

Where: Aspen District Theatre

When: Tuesday, June 28, 8 p.m.

How much: $25; included with Aspen Ideas Festival pass

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

For her new one-woman play, actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith has traveled the U.S. and interviewed some 300 people, crafting what she calls “verbal portraits” of Americans along the school-to-prison pipeline.

The play, still a work in progress, attempts to dissect the causes and conditions of that pipeline, looking at how young Americans living in poverty are often led into the criminal justice system. Titled “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education,” Smith will perform excerpts tonight at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The performance at the Aspen District Theatre is open to the public.

“I’ve been trying to become American word for word,” Smith said in a phone interview last week.

The impetus for the project was a U.S. Department of Justice finding that poor black and brown young people in America are suspended and expelled from school at a far higher rate than white children, contributing to an early and often unnecessary entrance into the institutions and disproportionate incarceration.

In her travels, Smith has talked to students and teachers, sociologists and teenagers in juvenile prisons, neuro-scientists and counselors. At Sunday’s closing session of the Spotlight Health forum, Smith performed a few monologues from the piece, using her formidable skills as an actress to become an emotional support teacher, a child in a California juvenile prison and the writer James Baldwin.

These testimonies serve to illustrate a complex and seemingly intractable societal problem tied to school disciplinary practices, drop-out rates, economic inequality, substance abuse, mental-health problems and structural and institutional racism.

Smith wants audiences to leave the theater motivated to take action.

“My hope is that when you come and see what I’m going to offer, I hope you get moved emotionally and you’re going to figure out what you want to do,” she said. “People at the Aspen Institute have the opportunity to do a lot of stuff through policy, through philanthropy, through just helping a kid down on the street. That’s what the whole project is about.”

Smith is a MacArthur “genius” award-winner, a Tony-nominated actress, a Pulitzer-nominated playwright and a recipient of the National Humanities Medal. But to the wider public she’s probably most recognized for roles in films and on television shows like “Nurse Jackie” and “The West Wing.” She has been working with the Aspen Institute since she served as an Ideas Festival artist-in-residence in 2006.

She began her Pipeline Project research in Stockton, California — the beleaguered city best known for going bankrupt in 2012. From there she went to the Yurok Indian Reservation near the California-Oregon border. And she’s since dug into the school-to-prison pipeline in South Carolina and her native Baltimore.

Smith tries to approach subjects as a blank slate ­— she doesn’t go into interviews with prepared questions.

“I worry that a list of questions gives me a point of view,” she said. “Which I don’t want to have.”

So, she said, it might start with something like “Have you ever heard of the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’? Do you know there is such a thing?” If it’s a child in a juvenile detention center, it might start more simply: “What happened?”

She’s brought different versions of the show to audiences around the U.S., crafting it based on regional issues. The international Aspen Ideas crowd will hear stories that raise questions about race and civil rights.

“What I’m going to show there is more focused on a theme that I have heard, which is, ‘Are we on the verge of a new civil-rights movement? And, if so, is that going to be about education? Or about relationships to authority and particularly police officers?’” she said. “I’m framing it that way, looking at how race relations are affecting this problem I’m looking at.”

During a performance of “Notes From the Field” last year in Berkeley, California, Smith stopped midway and sent the audience off to talk about what action they could take to disrupt the pipeline and asked attendees for commitments for action.

She doesn’t expect to do so here, Smith said, but hopes for a ripple effect among policymakers and the general public at Ideas Fest to make its way around the world from Aspen.

“I hope people have an emotional relationship with what I’ve done and somehow it informs how they hear what they’re going to hear from people who do policy,” she said.

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