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Anna Deveare Smith returning to Aspen Institute for virtual event

Anna Deveare Smith at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where she performed a preview of her one-woman show "Notes from the Field," which is now on Broadway.
Courtesy photo |

IF YOU WATCH. . .

What: ‘Criminal Justice Transformation in the Age of COVID and Beyond,’ presented by the Aspen Institute

Who: Anna Deveare Smith, Darren Walker, Vivian Nixon

When: Wednesday, Sept. 16, 11 a.m.

Where: aspeninstitute.org

How much: Free

More info: The event was originally scheduled to take place in August. Registration is required.

The actor and playwright Anna Deveare Smith is America’s great maker of empathy and action. In her work she blends the curiosity and dogged research of journalism with a deep well of emotion and actorly skill to introuduce audiences to an array of people suffering injustice in the U.S.

She has been working in Aspen Institute programs since her 2006 tenure as an artist-in-residence here. During a 2016 visit, when she was performing an in-progress version of her future Broadway play “Notes From The Field,” she told me she was anticipating a new movement that could change the paradigm of race in America.

“Are we on the verge of a new civil rights movement?” she asked. “And, if so, is that going to be about education? Or about relationships to authority and particularly police officers?”

Four years later, that movement is here, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as the nation has been galvanized to change policing and systemic racism in every aspect of American life.

Smith is meeting the moment. Her next Aspen Institute appearance is a virtual event Sept. 16. She’ll be joined by the Rev. Vivian Nixon, an Aspen Institute Ascent Fellow, and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker to discuss the inequities of the criminal justice system, how the novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted them and how this period might lead to lasting reform.

The discussion is inspired by the virus outbreaks in jails, prisons and detention centers, where activists have attempted to protect the young, old and at-risk from the ravages of the virus for the incarcerated.

The June PBS broadcast of her one-woman play “Twilight: Los Angeles” — about the 1992 unrest that followed the acquittal of police officers who brutalized Rodney King — remains one of the cultural high points of the coronavirus stay-home period. Like her other innovative stage projects, it is based on deep research and one-on-one interviews with those who lived through the event and it attempts to bring their lived experience to the stage through Smith’s prodigious talent as a mimic and actor.

In “Notes from the Field” she held up a mirror to our troubled country, making an indelible and heroic piece of political art and a call to action for the new movement Smith presaged.

Using the method that has long been the backbone of her work, Smith traveled the U.S. and interviewed some 300 people to craft her “verbal portraits” of Americans on the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” The “Notes From the Field” show brought to Aspen — and later to Broadway and to HBO, where it is still on demand — the minds and souls of incarcerated youth, of law enforcement officers and teachers. She spoke works from James Baldwin and from friends of Freddie Gray.

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.”

Her stage work, she is not shy of saying, is meant to be a call to action.

“I’ve been trying to become America word for word,” Smith told me. “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.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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