Anna Deavere Smith performs at Goucher

By: Destiny Lugardo

Actress, playwright, and New York University professor Anna Deavere Smith performed excerpts from her one woman play on April 12th at Kraushaar Auditorium. As part of the Power of Storytelling themed semester, Smith treated the audience to four interviews performed entirely in the character of the subject being interviewed. Her performance, was from her latest play, which ran on Broadway from November to December 2016.

After a brief introduction from President Bowen, Anna Deavere Smith took the stage. She initially spoke on how she was born, raised, and educated in Baltimore City as a Western High School graduate, to the delight of the crowd.

Before beginning her performance, Smith revealed that she detests the term “The School-to-Prison Pipeline” because it “Implies that schools and the teachers are the reason why so many young people just can’t make it and end up in the criminal justice system.” According to Smith, “This problem is about poverty and several generations of poverty.” All four interviews touched on how poverty and systematic oppression hinders one’s ability to achieve mobility and wellness in life.

The first subject of the night was Kevin Moore. He was one of the witnesses who videotaped Freddie Gray’s arrest on April 12th, 2015. His video became a vital piece of evidence in the investigation of Freddie Gray’s death while Gray was in the custody of six Baltimore City Police Officers.

Moore recalled the day’s events in his interview with Anna Deavere Smith. Mimicking Moore’s Baltimore accent and vernacular, Smith portrayed his brutal description of the arrest.

“It’s ridiculous how bad they hurt that man. You know what I’m saying come on. Three crack vertebrae can you do that to yourself? Can you sever eighty percent of your own spinal cord? You know what I’m sayin, in the back of a paddy wagon shackled and handcuffed?.. Man this shit is crazy man. This shit is crazy. They just don’t care anymore.”

When asked what provoked Freddie Gray’s arrest, Moore had a simple answer: eye contact. “We know the truth, know what I’m sayin? The eye contact thing? It… It… It… sets it off.  It’s like a trigger…It’s all it takes when you’re in Baltimore. Just a glance.”

Allen Bullock, a young man who was caught vandalizing a car during the Baltimore unrest, was the subject of the next portrait. The interview originally took place in Bullock’s lawyer’s office. He later served six months in prison for the incident. Bullock also discussed the “eye contact” that killed Freddie Gray.

“I had police ask me why I’m walking in the street? Why I’m crossing the street? Which you mean why I’m walking the street? They don’t even say excuse me sir, come here, none of that. You just ask me why I’m walking across the street… They gonna beat you straight like that and it ain’t no oh let’s find something on you? No, they gonna do what they wanna do at that time, at that moment. It don’t.. It don’t even… At this point it don’t even matter if they black or white.”

The performance diverted from the Freddie Gray tragedy and turned to another viral, unjust act. A high school student from South Carolina named Niya Kenny was the subject of Smith’s next vignette. She is known for recording a video of a white school police officer dragging a fellow black classmate across the room while she was still in her seat. The disturbing footage made news headlines and sparked outrage for weeks.

Surprisingly, Niya was arrested that day. While in the detention center, the video Niya shot played on the television screen and humorously, everyone with her in the prison agreed that she was going home soon. However, Smith’s vignette of Niya Kenny was centered around Niya’s own willingness to advocate for those whose voices are never heard, even in the face of tenacity.

The final vignette featured a Maryland woman studying as an inmate with the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP). Denise Dodson explained how receiving an education helped her understand how connected she really is to everyone else in the world. After Dodson’s heartbreaking backstory was revealed in the interview, Smith, in a soft, somber tone, expressed how emotionally depriving a life without education is:

“Without that education, I always felt less than and I think if I had that education, to know that I am somebody, that I’m a good person, and that I had a purpose…And now I do have a purpose.”

Dodson’s vignette ended with what could be an experiential solution to the school-to-prison pipeline: “If the teachers would really see the children as the little people that they really are, they would progress better. You have to see them as people. You have to see them as people who will go out and be your next door neighbor. You have to see them as the future. You have to teach them all that you can while you can…If they don’t absolve the right things, that’s barbaric.”

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