On the evening of June 23, I had the absolute privilege (I’ll return to this in a bit) of seeing the final London performance of Anna Deavere Smith’s one woman show “Notes From The Field” with my Destination Theatre class. This show was a collection of performed personal accounts from interviews Smith conducted herself, all centred around the topic of the “school to prison pipeline” in North America. She interviewed around 250 people in total for this project, which began in 2011, and was first performed in 2015.
Smith defines this “pipeline” for us on her website, which I highly recommend visiting by following the associated link:
“Basically, the US Justice Department released statistics that show that poor black, brown and Native American children are suspended and expelled more frequently than their middle-class and white counterparts, and that these suspensions and expulsions are directly linked to the likelihood that they will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.”
I am myself a middle-class white female who grew up primarily in North Carolina, but near communities that only upon reflection do I now realize mirrored some of those depicted in Smith’s performance. I remember having a school safety officer, a large white man with a badge who we’d see wandering, or patrolling, the halls. These were my younger years, mind any reader. And there were students, children, who brought drugs or weapons into the school as early as grade 6, who were being indoctrinated into gangs because that’s just what someone from their own communities was accustomed to. These children were generally African American or Hispanic. Maybe there was a precedent for our safety officer, but there is no doubt that there were underlying social mechanisms at play concerning who was at risk of becoming criminalized at a young age and why.
So, privilege. When I was a kid in that school with the safety officer, I felt safe. I had nothing to fear. But other students did, and I was blissfully unaware of how much more there was, or should have been, to student discipline. That there was a story or a reason behind misbehaviour, and more intervention may have been required than a reactionary punishment. That the reactionary punishment was possibly an overreaction, and damaging in some way to the student. It was my privilege to not have to worry about these things, and it was imperative that I learned that I should worry.
If this is something that I, at 21 years old, remember from my childhood, then it is obviously something that has been happening for years, likely beginning far before I began elementary school, and potentially lasting far into our future as well. This is something that can be stopped though, and this is what Smith is trying to do, in her own way. Through using such an emotionally accessible medium as her performance is, Smith raises awareness and educates her audiences on this “pipeline” problem. Often, theatre isn’t a physically accessible medium though, for such demographics as those depicted in her show (good news though, a filmed version is now available on HBO). It is most accessible to relatively privileged communities, but these are the people who need to learn about these social injustices, because the people affected by them already know. So upon learning and leaving this show, I hope that others like myself will move forward recognizing our privilege, and using it in a way that means something. Ask questions, demand answers, and stand up for your neighbours. And share your HBO Go password so everyone can see this vital piece of theatre.