Digging Up the Pipeline

AUG 15, 2016

by Alisa Solomon

Anna Deavere Smith speaks with Kevin Moore in Baltimore

What should happen to an elementary school student who declines to come in from recess when the teacher calls? Or who grabs a classmate’s Play-Doh and refuses to give it back? Or doesn’t take turns while playing with other kids? In Boston, according to Greater Boston Legal Services, kids in grades K-3 have been suspended for these specific behaviors—kicked out of school for a time simply for acting like children. Instead of disciplinary methods that help children to grow socially and academically, suspensions, studies repeatedly show, are counterproductive: they take kids out of a learning environment and leave them further behind in their studies. What’s more, they do not help correct students’ misbehavior; rather, they often confuse children, produce antipathy toward school, and, especially as students get older, leave them unsupervised with unstructured time, free to hang out and get into trouble—often, with the law.

School suspensions—disproportionately meted out to students of color and students with disabilities—make up just one of the conduits feeding what child advocates and policy experts have come to call the “school- to-prison pipeline”: the policies and practices that push schoolchildren, especially those most at risk, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

It’s a disturbing, astonishing term that conjures a rushing tide of young people being funneled behind bars. Some analysts have begun to call it the “cradle-to-prison pipeline,” noting that kids born into precarious circumstances are thrown into this current even before they begin kindergarten.

Anna Deavere Smith was stunned when she first heard the phrase a few years ago as she listened to a discussion among social justice experts in New York. She learned about five-year-olds being handcuffed for throwing tantrums, about older kids arrested for pranks. The sorts of mischief that once would have landed kids in the principal’s or guidance counselor’s office were now sending them swirling down the drain into the pipeline. Smith’s artistic pilot light—always fueled by a desire to understand the human encounter with our country’s most vexing and pressing problems—flamed high. She set out to understand the plight of these children, using the unique and powerful form of documentary theater that she invented decades ago.

Smith builds her plays by interviewing a diverse group of people who all have some stake in a particular event or issue, and then culls rich monologues from what she calls the “organic poetry” in their expression. She performs these verbatim texts with complete fidelity to the rhythms and patterns of each person’s speech and gestures. As a result, on stage, through the medium of her body, Smith brings into dialogue—into intimate conversation—people who would otherwise never occupy the same space. A Lubavitcher housewife, a Nation of Islam minister, an Orthodox rabbi, and a young rapper, for instance, are just four of some twenty-six characters Smith personified in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities, the 1992 work that dug into the heart of the violent clashes between that neighborhood’s Hasidic and Caribbean-American communities and that catapulted Smith to international acclaim. With this same technique, Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 illuminated the causes and effects of the riots that followed the verdict in the Rodney King beating case. House Arrest examined the American presidency and its public image; Let Me Down Easy (presented here at the A.R.T. in 2008), illness and mortality within the context of a broken healthcare system.

For her Pipeline Project, Smith traversed the country, beginning in California and Pennsylvania, interviewing students, teachers, principals, mentors, advocates, judges, inmates, government officials, and more. Smith arrived in her hometown of Baltimore to conduct more interviews on the heels of the death of Freddie Gray, one of hundreds of African American men to have died in police custody in 2015. She landed in Charleston, South Carolina after a young white man opened fire there on an African American Bible-study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. We geared up for rehearsals here in Cambridge amid the terrible events of July that saw the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, and that revealed, even more starkly in this divisive election year, national discord over not only the best policies for addressing social problems, but even over what the problems are. The pipeline gushes on in a context of racial disparity, gun violence, and racial profiling, a context in which—in the astounding words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor—an individual can become “not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state just waiting to be catalogued.”

During her research, Smith saw how the punitive aggression of policing in poor communities of color lines up with young people’s experience in the local schools. The populations disproportionately profiled, arrested, and met with violence by police—people of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty, or learning disabilities—are the same ones targeted by “zero-tolerance” school discipline, policies intended to keep schools free of drugs and weapons by imposing severe punishments, but that criminalize all kinds of rule-breaking or disruptive activities that in more affluent communities would be resolved with a good talking-to or, in severe cases, with therapy to help the child stabilize and succeed. The statistics—in this, the Western country with the highest incarceration rate—are not only staggering. They also reveal a web of predicaments entrenched in criminal justice practices, education policy, long-term poverty, and, as Dr. Victor Carrion, a character represented in the play, points out, the chronic stress of impoverishment and violence that hampers a child’s ability to function in a classroom. Just a few examples from the overwhelming data: In 2012-13, 190 children in kindergarten to third grade were suspended from California schools for the “crimes” of chewing gum in class, talking back, or wearing the wrong clothes. Seventy percent of students involved in “in-school arrests” or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino. Being suspended in ninth grade doubles the likelihood that the student will not complete high school. Nearly seventy-four percent of males in state prison do not have a high school diploma.

Even in these polarized, violent times, there’s an opening for change now that Smith hopes her play can help pry wider. Activism for racial equality is responding to devastating events by working to accelerate the bend of America’s arc of history toward justice. As Democrats and Republicans alike agree that mass incarceration has to be scaled back, schools and local legislatures are beginning to inch away from “zero tolerance.” Massachusetts has helped lead the way with Chapter 222, the law that restricts the use of school suspension and requires schools to provide alternative learning programs for students in trouble. President Obama himself acknowledged, in his speech in Baltimore after the uproar over Freddie Gray’s death, how tightly the strands of poverty, violence, inadequate schooling, unemployment, and adversarial policing are woven together. More than in her previous plays, with Notes from the Field Smith wants, she has said, to “build a model for art to be in direct connection to advocacy.”

It’s an intricate model. Smith is not talking about agit-prop or hectoring audiences with her own answers. On the contrary, she regards theater as a place of radical hospitality that can convene a public and raise the most tangled questions. But how, then, do theater- goers think about and perhaps take action in response to those questions? For all her virtuosity, Smith doesn’t count her work a success if the only thing spectators say to each after the play is, “Wow. That was powerful. So, where should we go for drinks?” She has long been consumed by an inquiry into what might happen after the houselights come up. She ran its first laboratory here at Harvard from 1998 to 2000, the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. Smith recruited a “core audience” of local residents committed to attending all the offerings in a summer season of works curated by Smith and developed at the Institute, and to participating in a variety of conversations spurred by them.

Now, for Notes from the Field, Smith is conducting an even more ambitious experiment: You, the audience, are cast as the actors in Act II. While theater can’t do the work of organizing, it has a unique power to reveal issues in their layered complexity, stir up surprising empathies, spark the moral imagination, and move us to examine our positions in relation to the problems presented—perhaps leading to further engagement and action beyond the theater’s walls. At a time when there are too many reasons to feel what the Italian political theorist Antoni Gramsci famously called “pessimism of the intellect,” we hope that Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education— and the conversations it provokes—can fill our reservoirs with “optimism of the will.”


The dramaturg for Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, Alisa Solomon teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she directs the MA concentration in Arts & Culture. A longtime theater critic and political journalist, she has written for The Nation, The New York Times,, The Forward, American Theatre, among other publications, and The Village Voice, where she was a staff writer for two decades. Her books include Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender, and most recently, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof. Alisa holds a doctorate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from Yale and loves to be in a rehearsal room when she can carve out the time. She served as dramaturg on Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy and is thrilled to be working on the Pipeline Project.

Image Credit
Anna Deavere Smith and Kevin Moore: Blake Alcantara

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