Four storeys above the chaos of a blistering summer afternoon on Manhattan’s Eighth Avenue, Anna Deavere Smith sits in silence. The acclaimed American playwright and actor – who played Nancy McNally on The West Wing – glances at the rehearsal room floor, draws breath and begins the opening monologue of her one-woman show, Notes from the Field, assuming the voice of famed civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill.
“It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system, mass incarceration, without talking about education,” Smith says, capturing both the matter-of-fact exasperation and scholarly expertise you can imagine the NAACP Legal Defence Fund’s veteran president exuding.
The monologue is one of 19 speeches that make up the 90-minute show – all verbatim extracts from interviews Smith conducted herself or speeches made in public, which explore the uniquely American phenomenon of the school-to-prison pipeline.
The play is her first appearance in London for more than 25 years, and won critical acclaim when it was performed off-Broadway in 2016, including from President Barack Obama.
America incarcerates almost a quarter of the global prison population, with by far the highest rate of imprisonment in the world. The prison-industrial complex began during Nixon’s war on drugs and has continued to proliferate ever since, giving rise to a system that disproportionately punishes people of colour. Feeding into this dysfunction is a public school system, increasingly punitive and over-policed, that feeds the machine with young adults – disproportionately black and brown – abandoned by formal education.
Smith’s work seeks to engage this dark trend with a group of characters carefully chosen from more than 250 interviews the playwright conducted around America over a period of roughly three years. It is the latest in her On the Road series, encompassing more than a dozen plays using verbatim interviews as the foundation for drama.
She flits between young people caught at the harsh end, and teachers, judges, activists and politicians who see the problem from different personal and historical vantages. The performance combines these perspectives with live musical accompaniment and video clips documenting the contemporary events her subjects are grappling with. It is an extraordinary accomplishment, which provides a rich exploration of the subject through deeply personal narratives.
But how does she think audiences in London will engage with such a raw, perhaps alien, exposé of contemporary America, when the play comes to the Royal Court this month?
Her response, like the show, is direct and honest. “Maybe it’s a dangerous thing to say, I haven’t been all that excited about going back to London,” she says, explaining that the last time she took a play to the UK – her 1992 work Fires in the Mirror that documented the Crown Heights race riots in Brooklyn – “I just didn’t feel they [the British audience] were there with me.”
“I’m honoured to be invited, but I haven’t pursued London since that time as a place to go with my work, because I’m very mission-driven,” she says. “I’ve thought maybe I’m just too American. I’m very aware of my mission in America, my place in America.”
She recognises, of course, that the UK has long faced its own entrenched prejudice within the criminal justice system, albeit on a scale that is dwarfed by the juggernaut of American inequality. And she suggests a meaningful run in London, at a theatre located in one of the most affluent boroughs in the city, is ultimately about raising awareness.
“I would say that success in London would be if anyone’s concerned, and concerned enough to see how that plays out in England. Racism is not unique to the United States.”
There is a pang of sadness watching Notes from the Field, recorded as a live action movie for HBO, in the era of the Trump presidency. The play was researched throughout the Obama years and, although its subject matter touches on some of the darkest moments in his presidency – from the racist massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, to the riots in Baltimore – it is a reminder that the nation’s first black president had actively engaged with the need for sweeping reform of America’s broken criminal justice system.
Trump, who branded himself the “law and order candidate”, has already taken significant measures to roll back any of the progress made by the previous administration and appointed former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who has had to deny allegations of racism, to be his attorney general.
Smith says the play has not been significantly altered since it was first performed in the Obama years. “I’ve always had a sense of purpose with this project. So, I don’t think that’s changed because Trump is president. He’s not helping the plight of poor kids, and he’s not helping the disparity between rich and poor, and he’s not helping our situation with regard to what punishment has become in this country at all. But the problems were here before Trump.”
And yet, she says, certain points within the work now carry a different weight. A closing moment sees the actor assume the role of congressman John Lewis, the civil rights veteran brutally beaten by police officers during civil disobedience in Selma, reflecting on a moment of reconciliation with one of the officers there that day in 1965.
“Hold on. Never give up. Never give in. Never lose faith. Keep the faith,” she says as Lewis.
“When I say [that] … I’m speaking exactly to this moment,” she tells me.
The intensity of the performance leads her to what she describes as a “monkish existence” during runs. She avoids loud places, won’t kiss or hug anyone after shows, and mostly heads straight home to bed – all in a bid to keep free of germs, preserve the quality of her voice, and sit with the weight of the stories she is telling.
Smith, who received a George Polk award – one of America’s highest journalism honours – for her body of work last year, is nonetheless uncomfortable with the label of a journalist.
“You’re supposed to be objective,” she says to me, forthrightly bashing her fists on the desk we’re sitting at. “So you can’t call yourself an art form, even if it’s beautiful and it has that aesthetic value. But I can say that I’m looking for metaphors to reveal the truth. I don’t have to say I’ve found the truth. You do.”
She accepts though that her research methods bear a similarity to the journalistic process itself: travelling long distances, booking in interviews as the trip unfolds and speaking to people about the most desperate, difficult moments in their lives.
I tell her that the play had a profound effect on me in a way that theatre rarely does. Many of the events included were stories I covered on the ground. Some of the characters in her work are people I have interviewed, too, and it brought up feelings of residual trauma associated with covering the endless cycle of violence and brutality in American society.
As a reporter there is a tendency, as I have experienced, to lose the ability to empathise with your subjects, and I wonder if it’s something she feels, too? “The compassion fatigue is something very, very serious,” she says. “In my case, I respect what I’m carrying. I know it’s not light. But I’ve been training to carry it for my whole life. You know, it’s rough.”