Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith spoke with Paul Costello for Stanford Medicine Magazine on her relationship to her own skin, how as a writer and actor she gets under the skin of her characters, and on her work in the theater. Smith’s newest work, Pipeline Project, is currently in development and received a MAP Fund grant earlier this year. Read on for an excerpt on the focus of the project from the full interview.
Costello: Your newest theater work is The Pipeline Project. What does it focus on?
Smith: It is in line with current discussions about inequality and the big gap we have in this country between those who have and those who do not. My interest in the school-to-prison pipeline begins with my interest in education. I was raised by teachers and I’ve taught for 40 years. The kids of The Pipeline Project get shoved out of school into the juvenile justice system and on from there, with a likelihood to be in correction facilities for part or much of their lives. The current tendency to immediately suspend students whose deeds might in different, more privileged environments be regarded as mischief is traced back to zero-tolerance policies that were created in the 1990s. This is a current moral dilemma, which is aligned with a larger moral dilemma about mass incarceration and, as I indicated a moment ago, a moral dilemma about the ways in which so many people lack opportunity to have productive lives and to be productive members of our society. The pathologies related to poverty and the ones related to severe punishment must be curtailed.
Costello: Do you see the reform of the criminal justice system as a health issue?
Smith: It’s definitely a health issue. Poor people are suffering not only because of economic disparity but because of the trauma and violence with which they live. It’s also a mental health issue. I was really disturbed by a recent New York Times article about the “disappearing black man.” [Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life. New York Times, April 20, 2015.] What does that do to communities? What’s the health of a community like with these staggering statistics? What does this mean in terms of the well-being of women and men who have lost their partners or the potential to have them? What does it mean in terms of the lack of fathers for boys and girls? Historically, people have tended to focus on the ramifications of the loss of fathers to young boys. It’s a major loss for girls too.
Listen to the audio and read the transcript of the full interview here.
Pipeline Project is currently seeking facilitators to lead audience engagement; more information is available here.