tv Talk to Al Jazeera Al Jazeera February 27, 2016 2:30pm-3:01pm EST
talk of this town at moment as hollywood prepares for its big night. for a place that deals in stories it's having to face some uncomfortable truths as well. >> well, you can find more on everything that we're covering right here. the address, www.aljazeera.com. >> this week on talk to al jazeera - actor, playwright and professor anna deavere smith >> we have lost a generation and we're losing more. and it's-- kind of a moral crisis. can we really afford to just throw people away on the basis of their color. >> smith has been using theatre to examine race relations for decades. her works draw from hundreds of real-life interviews. she then interprets her subjects' words - playing many
characters - in one-woman shows. >> i've followed several catastrophes over my career, and i find that catastrophe is the place where people become most creative in their language. >> one of her latest projects-- a play about the "school-to- prison pipeline" - a trend in which children move from the classroom into the criminal justice system. >> i met a young man who was in prison outside of-- of washington, d. c. he is 18 years old. he says, once you become-- you get committed, which means being sent to jail-- they give you services. >> he says they give you-- they give you a job, you get a tutor, you get mental. >> baltimore is home to the performance artist. it's an appropriate setting to research violence and economic despair. >> i think that-- that poverty is now considered some kind of a disgrace, some kind of a pathology. >> smith has received countless accolades and awards. in popular culture she's best
known for her tv work on nurse jackie and the west wing, and films like the american president. >> i think that, you know, michael douglas was a good president, but martin sheen was a really good president too. >> i spoke to anna deavere smith in new york. >> your work outside of mainstream television tackles some of the biggest social issues facing our country right now. i'm wondering how you're influenced by your own childhood. growing up in baltimore during a time of segregation. >> well, i guess two things about that. one, when i was a girl, my grandfather said, "if you say a word often enough, it becomes you." so i took that and applied it to some things i was learning in the conservatory when i studied acting. and i had this goal to become america word for word. the idea of reenacting americans in particular people unlike me, with trying to learn as much as i could about america by putting myself in their words the way you think about putting yourself
in another person's shoes. >> but if we're going to get all psychological and heavy about it we would say that it came from really the crisis of growing up in segregation where you're told, "you can't go there and you can't go there." >> what was it like? to be there growing up at that time? >> well, i mean you know, it was de facto segregation. but, you know, even inside of the black community, there were all these lines. lines about class, lines about color. you know, we're different colors. my brother had blue eyes, and my brother's coloring was a lot like yours, my late brother deavere smith. and so i didn't like that idea, that, "you can't go here, you can't go there." and then i had a great opportunity to go to western high school, it was a public school. baltimore was also very anti-semitic so sort of the word on the street was if you want your kids to have a good education, go wherever the jewish kids are going. and so it was at western going to school with white girls, some jewish and some not, i saw that, wow, white people don't get along.
because the anti-semitism was so extraordinary. >> did you see a difference in the way that your brother was treated growing up versus you, because of the difference in your appearance? >> i think it was actually very complicated for him. because he-- >> for him? >> well, you know, it when sort of black revolution started, my brother was much more radical than me. he grew up in privilege because of his look. you know, my mother, the joke was that, when i was on street with him and my mother, i was 18 months older, they'd say, "where'd you get that pretty little boy?" but then it flipped. in the '60s with, you know "i'm black and i'm proud," then-- you know, and he was very of that, you know, "i'm black and i'm proud." and then-- so then, you know, he's misunderstood because he was a light-skinned guy. all of that stuff seemed to be ridiculous to me. i was certainly conscious, very conscious of the fact that i lived with a group of people, colored people that had their own culture. and even the colored people who
were very successful had their own culture. i was a debutante, right? i would never have been a debutante in white society, but inside of, you know, sort of baltimore's classicism within the black community, you know, there was that. so i saw all of the strata of society as a kind of performance, i would have to say. >> what do you make of your hometown right now, baltimore is facing big challenges. generational poverty in some neighborhoods, extreme unemployment a prison pipeline that seems never ending. how did it get to that point? >> it's a tragedy. i mean, i can't-- that's the only thing i can tell ya about it. and fortunately for me, i had sort of planned to have baltimore be in my new play about kids who can't get through school and end up in the criminal justice system. and i actually saw the play itself as-- as sort of coming home. then-- by some odd chance, coincidence, it turned out that
when i was going home to do my research in baltimore, just about education, it was right on the heels of the riot that happened after the death of freddie gray. >> so what i see is a city that is bombed out. i don't know what's gonna happen to all that property. i see youth who are in despair. i went to a funeral of a, like, 22 year old had been shot. i think the numbers are something like 273-- >> closing on 300 for the year >> yeah, of-- of-- >> it will be a record year of homicides. so as a dramatist, you know, sadly i am interested in catastrophe. and this catastrophe really hits home because it was where i grew up. >> you went to a funeral of a 22 year-old. is it somebody you knew? >> no. i really went-- because i wanted to hear-- a v-- sort of a-- preacher in baltimore who's young-- man who's, you know--
the type of preacher who's gonna be in politics, reverend ebert jones (ph). young, young, incredibly c-- charismatic-- young man. and the only way i would be able to hear him preach, given my schedule, was to go to a funeral. and so-- i did. >> what was is it like for you to sit and see the effects of the violence first hand? >> i would say that-- it seems to me to be almost like a kind of a performance now, these funerals. the whole community's packed in. mothers crying has to be taken out. you see the females, i guess the females of the guy who died, all dressed up. working people lined up against the wall. a person preaching, asking, you know, praying, "help our youth." and then i wonder why aren't these more cathartic? why don't they make a difference? they don't seem to make a difference. i came out of that funeral, and there was another funeral going down the street.
and i said to a woman sitting on the s-- standing on the street, i said, "well, whose funeral is that?" said, "oh, that's probably the child - you hear about the seven-year-old child was killed on embassy avenue? it's probably her." and i had seen another funeral as i was approaching. i feel that these deaths - i don't know why the community, my community can't take a hold of that. i do think that, in the black community, that raised me, we would have taken hold of it. my par-- my-- >> what's the difference? >> i-- i just think that the-- i think we c-- i think that there's a disintegration. i think the lack of dignity that people have about their lives. my mother and her siblings were raised in the depression. they all, you know, went to college. i think that-- that poverty is now considered some kind of a disgrace, some kind of a pathology, and it wasn't in that generation, and it wasn't in my generation. you know, the idea was that we would all move forward and we--
and we'd help each other. something happened. maybe people say it's crack cocaine. i think that it's the-- it's the evolving over time of an extraordinary division between rich and poor that has occurred in this country. and not just a division between rich and poor, but the great division now between the middle class and the wealthy, and people who say the middle class is gone. all the jobs that left baltimore, you know about that, about-- bethlehem steel. all of those, that's gone now-- >> the biggest steel manufacture is gone; jobs disappear. >> jobs disappear. >> baltimore is indicative of what's happening in many urban cities across the country right now. and when you go and you dig in, and you interview these people for your project, do you still see hope for the future? >> well, you know, i don't think that i am as-- i-- i don't know if i'm so infatuated with hope. unless you mean the ability to
move in spite of what looks catastrophic. if that's what you mean by hope, i'm-- i'm very-- i'm a hope-a-holic. if what you really mean is optimism, which is kind of saying, "well, looks like it'll be better--" but i don't think we can talk about hope until we really look at what-- look deeply at the problem. that's kind of like saying, "well, i think you have cancer, but let's think about when you'll be well." and i'm very excited to be in the midst of people who want to change this because even if they fail, they will have discovered something which is gonna help somebody. >>an epidemic, plaguing students across america-- the school-to-prison pipeline. coming up, anna deavere smith shares how she hopes theatre will provoke an in-depth look at the problem. >> "inside story" takes you beyond the headlines, beyond the quick cuts, beyond the soundbites. we're giving you a deeper dive into the stories that are making our world what it is.
this is talk to al jazeera -- i'm adam may. my guest this week is the actor anna deavere smith. her solo show looks at how children are being pushed from school into the criminal justice system. >> notes from the field, you interviewed 150 people? >> right now, just about. but normally i'm, like, up to about 300. it's just that this project is-- is developing-- more slowly, in large part 'cause i was on a television show for 7 years-- nurse jackie. >> "notes from the field: doing time in education" is a two-act show and in that first act you become many, many characters. how do you change hats so quickly? >> well, this is a smaller show. i mean, in-- my biggest show was about washington and about the press, and i did 52 characters in that show. so, i mean, notes from the field maybe had i think less than 20.
it's all technical, you know, it's all what i've been teachin' myself how to do for a long time. but and it helps that, when i was a little girl in baltimore, i was-- i was a mimic, you know. it wasn't socially acceptable, >> who are some of the characters? >> so-- some kids, you know, some of whom i met behind bars, some that i met-- in the streets, some of i met-- in schools, a principal in philly, teachers, the tribal judge of a tribe, the yurok tribe, which is the biggest tribe in california, councilmen, a wide variety of folks. yeah-- social scientists. yeah, and a judge in philly. >> what do you hope it becomes? you are saying it is still in development? >> well, i'll tell ya what it is now is that it is a-- it is built to provoke conversation. with the hope that conversation will lead to action.
and that audiences will ironically come out of this show thinking, "wow, it's not a show, it's real. and what can i do about it?" we have lost a generation and we're losing more. and it's--kind of a moral crisis. can we really afford to just throw people away on the basis of their color, and how that color is related to their lack of opportunity? >> based on the people you've talked to, are there particular areas of failure in our society? >> i think we t-- expect too much of schools. i think it's absolutely unfair to blame teachers for this. i think it's unfair to attribute it all to school discipline. when obama made his remarks about baltimore-- it was a very eloquent speech, and he said, "if we think we're gonna fix this by fixing the police, absolutely not possible." i think if-- even though the police have got an extraordinary amount of attention, you know, and-- and we should be aware,
thank goodness for technology and cameras, you know, little cameras that we can see what's been happening from ferguson until now. it's been happening all the time; now we can look at it. but the police are in many ways just the front line for all of us. they protect property. they protect my property, they protect-- >> they are the arm of the government we interact with. >> the-- they're there. i mean, i'm sure you and i have different reaction if the police pulls us over. my guess is maybe i'm more frightened than you. but the fact is they protect us. they feel that, as being that thin blue line, they're doing their duty to serve. but these problems have to do with poverty, and they have to do with drugs, and they have to do with guns. i think drugs-- and- kids who are selling drugs at age 14, and the guns that they have to help them in that enterprise, i think-- i think that's a really big part of it. and the other big part of it is despair. you asked about hope, and so-- a lot of young people need treatment now that, you know, again, in my generation they didn't, or in my mother's
generation they didn't. the big word in school discipline now is the word "trauma." i've seen that word become bigger and bigger, just in the last two years of-- of my doing this research. so, in my mind's eye, the utopia is a whole new school, a whole different kind of a school. just a different kind of a place. because if we really ex-- >> like what? >> well, if we expect teachers to be-- psychiatrists-- champions-- get test scores going, do the perfect kind of discipline which isn't about sending you out of the room or suspending you or yelling at you, but loving you and getting the best out of you, whatever-- all these ideas we have, teachers can't do it. so i think that we have to make schools more like-- i don't wanna use a word community center because that has the wrong ring. th-- they have to be safe places where kids wanna come because they know, when they get there, people will make them feel better.
and that they'll be working towards not just a diploma, but wellness. >> weren't some of those responsibilities once more the role of the individual families though? >> well, the family is just disintegrated in these poor families because of the generations now that we have. i mean, these kids are-- i mean, one of the characters (laugh) in the play-- is just got-- accepted to college, a young latino man that i met-- in-- in-- northern california. and-- and he just got-- he's accepted into college. and i said, "well," i said-- "is your mother alive?" he said, "yeah." i said, "is your mother-- is-- she must be happy about that, about y--" and he goes, "well, my mother's happy. she's happy. she's happy i'm out, she's happy my brother's out, she's happy her brothers are out, 'cause they went to prison, i went to ya." >> so we have a situation (laugh) where it's like, "your brother is prison. your uncles are in prison." so the family has been ravaged by these things that have happened. so we can't-- we can't look to these families unless we have ways of supporting them, and
maybe schools should be places where parents come for parenting skills and so forth. >> i know you've also done a lot of research on the school-to-prison pipeline. how would you describe this problem? >> well, when people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, they're really talking about disciplinary practices. 'cause the united states department of justice has statistics that prove that african american, latino, and native american children are disciplined more harshly, and they are suspended quickly. famously, there's pictures of, like, five year olds being handcuffed, right? and the-- a number of suspensions does affect the likelihood that these young people will be in prison. i think that's just a part of it. and what i've learned-- because i was chasing the school-to-prison pipeline is that i see a broader picture, again, of the ravages of poverty. >> what do we do about it? do we have to have to go back and address the poverty issues, the root causes. and would some of
these other issues that are surface issues kind of go away? >> i think my idea, is what i just talked about, which is don't throw the baby out with the bath water. we know what schools have been. it's an institution that we understand. i think we need to rebuild them so that there are more services there. i met a young man who was in prison outside of-- of washington, d. c. he is 18 years old. and-- at the end of the interview-- i was finished, but he leaned forward and said, "can i please tell you why i'm afraid not to be locked up?" and it's because, he says, once you become-- you get committed, which means being sent to jail-- they give you services. he says they give you-- they give you a job, you got a tutor, you get mental. but once your commitment ends, you have no services whatsoever. he said, "so i would like to be able to stay in jail till i'm 21." and then he says, "the only problem with that is, once i'm locked up, they can send me
anywhere they want. send me to utah, minnesota, nebraska." >> imagine that. just imagine a young man who would rather be inside than be outside in the streets where he sees that he will have no opportunity other than to sell drugs, rob cars and people. and to end up right back in the same situation, maybe worse. so, you know, i think that we've put all of our resources-- you know, he's talkin' about the things he thinks are good in prison: jobs, tutors, and mental health. so we've put all of our rece-- -sources on the back end. so what would happen if all that money, all those billions of dollars were put on the front end? and we'll give some tutoring and some mental on the front end? >> are you surprised at all, that right now in this country, you're seeing bipartisan support for reducing this prison pipeline? >> i th--well, listen. i'm way--past surprised. i'm just thrilled about it. and i think that isn't it ir-- isn't it odd that we've been in
this place where we can't seem to come to agree about anything? but we do--agree of all things, think of it. just what-- what has happened to us? that the only thing we can agree about is that we have too many prisons? that mass incarceration is wrong? but at least we do agree. >> aren't you doing more than theater? how would you describe this art form that you have now? >> i would say that it is meant to-- provoke-- an in-depth look at reality. and that's probably what's different from it than traditional theatre. although, you know, theatre has always-- you know, it-- it comes out of a history of being applied to democracy. >> do you simply interview these people or do you sometime give them advise? >> no, i don't-- that's not my job. >> do you go home and wish you could? >> no--no. this is going to be something that's gonna take, to use an overused expression, a village. so i know that if i were really
gonna help one of these young people, i first have to find out who are the people who are already in their lives, and see if i could add anything or if i could be a part of, you know, making a cohesive whole for that person. this is not something that one person can solve for one person. >> you didn't plan on going on theatre for a career. yet, here you are talking about these serious issues. if you could do it all over again, would you pick a different career route, in order to talk about this? >> i wanted to be a linguistic ethnologist. at the time, i was very infatuated with french and german. and i went to college as a language major. but-- you know, but that fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons. in a way, i've become a sort of a linguistic ethnologist, right? i'm looking at how people's languish-- language tells me about the world around them and about them. if i had it to do over, i mean, i don't know. i-- i really don't know. sometimes i wish that i had just been
really successful in a sitcom. you know-- >> why? >> make a lot more money. >> what would that empower you to do that you can't do right now? >> i mean, also-- look, quite frankly, if people didn't know me from the west wing, and they didn't know me from nurse jackie, this is very, very important in my ability to develop an audience. so i don't-- i don't have an idea, for example, about, like, high culture, low culture, or anything like that. and of course television is where some of the best writing in america is found. so i guess it all goes together as a piece. but on the other hand, sometimes i think it would have been fine to, you know, have come out of acting school and-- like, gotten put on a sitcom and have a r-- >> have a "friends" salary? >> h-- well, have a beautiful place in l.a. i mean, when i go swimming, i've gotta go find a pool. it'd be nice to have one in my backyard; be nice to have a backyard. but-- (laugh) >> would you still.
if you had all of that. would you still talk about the issues you bring to light today? >> i might. of course there are many people in our mainstream arts who do an awful lot to draw--our attention to things around the world. and, you know, god bless 'em. god bless everyone who wants to step forward. >> television viewers know her best for her work as an er administrator. up next, anna deavere smith talks about nurse jackie.
that you did, who was the best president? >> isn't that a good question? well, i don't know. again, i wouldn't wanna get in trouble. i mean, i think that, you know, michael douglas was a good president, but martin sheen was a really good president too. >> tough choice? >> that's tough, really tough >> what message did nurse jackie send to television viewers? i have to tell ya that in the nurse jackie years, what meant so much to me is the people who came up to me on the street and said how much that show meant to them in their recovery. that was very moving to me, the people who really felt that the character of jackie helped keep them-- on track, because they watched her fumble. >> what's next for you? >> this project for the moment, this project that we're talking about today for the moment. >> why is it your passion?
>> well, i m-- >> you could be laying in that pool right now in malibu. >> well, i mean, again, i'm a-- essentially i am a dramatist, you know. whether you wanna call what i'm doing theatre or not, i am a dramatist. and drama is about catastrophe. and-- so i have-- i've followed-- several catastrophes over my career, and i find that catastrophe is the place where people become most creative in their language. remember i talked about being a linguistic ethnologist, because when something terrible has happened to you, you have to use all of your resources to make sense out of it. and most importantly, to bring dignity back to yourself. >> thank you so much. >> thank you. >> so nice talking to you. >> nice talking to you. >> there is so many changes in my life... i was ready for adventures. >> from burlesque dancer to acclaimed artists. >> art saved my life. >> reflections from her new memoir. >> no no no no no... i'm way to dysfunctional to have an ordinary job.