Anna Deavere Smith: 'Trump's behaviour has inspired artists to create an alternate reality'

The American playwright and actor talks about her verbatim play which explores the school-to-prison pipeline in the USA

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
© Joan Marcus

Anna Deavere Smith is a playwright and actress perhaps best known for her long-running role in the political TV series The West Wing. As a writer her credits include Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, which ran at the Gate Theatre earlier this year. She returns to the London stage for the first time in almost three decades with her one-woman show Notes From the Field, running at the Royal Court until 23 June as part of LIFT.

Where did the idea for Notes From the Field come from?
A group of people who do work with children in social justice told me about what is called the school-to-prison-pipeline. Basically, how poor kids get kicked out of school more often than middle-class and rich kids, and when they're not in school they're in trouble. In America you don't need too many bad steps down that road before you end up incarcerated. The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world.

And the play is the culmination of interviews with people involved in that pipeline?
Yes. 250 interviews in four geographic areas: northern California, an Indian reservation, Baltimore (my home town), Philadelphia and South Carolina. South Carolina has an area that has been called the corridor of shame because the schools are so bad. So this project was both about the failure of public education in the United States and the rise of policing and jailing people as a way of making up for the ways schools have collapsed.

Why did you want to tell this story?
Almost my entire career I have been very involved in using art to raise awareness, and I'm interested in problems too – because I'm a dramatist – I'm interested in catastrophe, and real-life certainly provides lots of catastrophe to be examined. There's an inherent drama in places where things fall apart, so on the one hand it's just me being a dramatist that makes me interested in this stuff, but it's also because I'm an African American woman with my own journey, having grown up in a time when things were much worse in America. I didn't grow up in poverty and I've never been incarcerated, nonetheless I feel that this is the story of my people, not just black people, but poor people, suffering people. It's in my DNA to be concerned about that.

So do you hope this piece can help to make a change?
As artists we have to be careful in saying that we can change the world because part of what we have to do is attend to our craft. So I feel that, at this stage of my life, the best I can do is use my craft to look at a conflict, use drama as a way of showing that conflict, and then hopefully people who have greater means than I will do something.

Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
Anna Deavere Smith in Notes From the Field
© Joan Marcus

You started Notes From the Field in 2013, so pre-Trump. Has his presidency changed the piece?
The piece and my relationship to it has changed since I started working on it, but it's not Trump that changed it. The most essential change that happened was that, right after my first workshop of the play, a man named Michael Brown was shot in the back in Ferguson, Missouri, and then that whole year there was lots of instances of people being shot down by cops. That strengthened my resolve to commit my personal self to the project more. It was in the third or fourth week of me performing the play in New York that Trump was elected, and you could feel the shift in my audiences.

As an artist, how does it feel to go from an art-supporting President like Obama to someone who seems to have a contempt for the arts like Trump?
I find that artists are more resolved than ever, to get out there and do their work. I think we're in a time when art is actually going to be quite exciting because there has to be this other reality! I did The West Wing during the Bush era and one of the reasons that show became so popular was because people who didn't like Bush felt it was an alternate White House. Well, Trump makes Bush look like Gandhi! But the vacuum left by his behaviour is inspiring a hunger for a moral imagination.

And now you find yourself in London. Are you excited to be performing at the Royal Court?
Yeah, I haven't been here for 28 years or so, which is amazing. I had a chance to meet Vicky Featherstone who seems to be a force of nature, I'm very excited about the people involved it's just too bad that I won't get to see anything while I'm in London.

How do you hope the play will be received here?
Things are different here, but I think this idea of the white race being dominant, as a matter of migration and human evolution, is changing, and while my play paints this tapestry of America, I hope it speaks to London too.