Performance Artist Anna Deavere Smith Channels Stories of Mass Incarceration


A woman speaks on a dark stage
Anna Deavere Smith speaks at a Scripps Presents event at Scripps College’s Garrison Theater on Feb. 6 (Courtesy of Scripps College)

Anna Deavere Smith, an American actress, playwright, and educator, delivered a guest talk denouncing the U.S. criminal justice system at Scripps College’s Garrison Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 2.

During her talk, Smith personalized the school-to-prison pipeline issue by impersonating people she encountered while conducting over 250 interviews across the nation.  According to Smith, many teenagers end up in prison as a result of zero tolerance policies in overly harsh educational institutions.

In fact, Smith said that the justice system incarcerates people based on their third-grade reading scores. She noted that there is a pattern of kids from low-income families being targeted as ‘criminals.’

“[I]t was such a powerful idea to me that [the wrongdoings of] rich kids [get labeled as] ‘mischief,’ and poor kids get pathologized and incarcerated,” Smith said. “I think it’s fair to call this problem a school-to-prison pipeline. I think it’s about poverty.”

The prevalence of guns, drugs, and suicides in disadvantaged communities make it incredibly “hard for a poor kid to make it through,” she said, saying that many social and biological scientists claim that poor social conditions come from “structural racism,” “trauma,” and “toxic stress” that “begin in the womb.”

“it is impossible to talk about … mass incarceration without talking about education,” Smith said. She argued that more funding should be invested in education and mental health services, rather than the cost-ineffective prison system.

Through a series of monologues, Smith shared real stories of people who were unnecessarily punished—from those detained for cursing in class when defending another classmate, to those beaten in police custody for giving someone the ‘wrong look.’

“Just a glance,” she said while impersonating an interviewee. “That’s all it takes to look suspicious.”

When one audience member during the Q&A asked Smith what surprised her the most in her research, Smith responded: “how quickly [imprisoned people] lose their own humanity.” She noted that many victims become hardened by experience.

After the talk, many students praised Smith’s performance and her overarching message.

“I really liked her emphasis on education,” Kristen Takebayashi SC ‘20 said. “The things she chose to present were varied enough to give a different picture, and [the interviewees] were all from more or less different places of America, but they also had that similar theme of … [racial] profiling and injustice,” she said.

“She very much moves us, the audience, from being spectators to being in the moment,” Takebayashi said. “She saw these people expressing themselves, and I think she in one aspect is trying to replicate them, but she also shows us what she wants us to see.”

Elise Van Scoy SC ‘20 also commented on how “well-practiced” Smith was in “her craft.” She admired that Smith herself acknowledged that “what she does will never compare” to what people do in the real world, but that art can act as something to bring people together and address an important issue.

“One of my favorite lines was when she was acting as the 18-year-old…and [was saying], ‘How can you mind your own business? [Injustice is] something you have to make your own business,’” Scoy said.

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