“That’s kind of how this journey began for me — falling in love with Shakespeare and then getting to see how the act of speech can be something around which change can happen,” explains Anna Deavere Smith about the film she created, “Notes from the Field.” Watch our exclusive video interview with her above as Smith adds, “I became really interested in how speech and expression can lead to action. Inevitably, if that’s your interest, you are going to trip over activism.”
“Notes from the Field” is a film addressing education, criminal justice and racial inequality facing young Americans today. Smith performs 18 monologues of real life people affected by and solved in these issues, including inmates, activists, educators and politicians. She constructed the piece from 250 interviews and performed it as a one-woman show at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2015. This year she turned it into a HBO film. She reveals, “I’m using my whole body and psyche. It’s not just words on a page, it’s a little bit like making a dance. Pretty much every night I revised the play and in making the movie I spent most of last summer in the editing room getting it down to 89 minutes.”
Smith believes that it is important to be bringing these issues to the social consciousness. “In society we don’t want to look at things. We want to pretend they are not there and it just makes things worse. It just makes the badness continue. It doesn’t make it go away, and it can make it more intense.” She wanted her performance to be help provoke action against passive observance. “In the first productions of the play, I stopped the show in the middle and sent the audience out into small groups of 20. They were to have facilitated conversations about what they were going to do about this. It’s all very good to sit back, watch me and say whatever you want to about my performance, but I’m here to try and get a conversation going that will get change to happen.”
Reflecting the film’s message after the election of Donald Trump, the former “West Wing” actor says that “Grace is important as an antidote. Lots of Americans felt like ‘The West Wing’ was the alternate reality of what was going on in Washington in those days. Now it’s beyond what’s going on in Washington. It’s almost as if a hate that was hiding emerged. I believe where there’s hidden hate there’s hidden love. Beyond politics I believe we have an opportunity in the arts and in other kinds of leadership to show other ways of being together. I think Howard Schultz just showed that with how he dealt with what happened in Starbucks. I think we have a moment where there’s a great opportunity for people to step forward and provide other kinds of leadership. I believe love is a form of leadership. I really want people to take away what John Lewis says at the end of the film: ‘Keep the faith, never lose faith. I want people to feel it’s possible to make a difference.’
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