The actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is best known for playing Gloria Akalitis on Nurse Jackie on Showtime. But she is also the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and President Obama awarded her the National Humanities Medal. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: You’ve been working recently in Baltimore, where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was killed by the police last April—on what they call a “rough ride” in the back of a police van, which broke his neck. Six police officers have been charged in his death, the jury in the first trial couldn’t reach a verdict, and the rest of the trials will begin soon. You grew up in Baltimore—what was Baltimore like for black people in those days—compared to today?
Anna Deavere Smith: We had de facto segregation. Blacks lived with blacks, gentiles with gentiles, Jews with Jews. Baltimore now looks to me like a disaster area. So many places that I knew from my youth—I left when I was 16—are just broken-down, boarded-up buildings, and there’s nowhere near the opportunity that the Negro community had in my time. Part of it is that industry left, part of it is crack cocaine came in. A pretty solid black working class and a black middle class disintegrated in Baltimore.
Your mother was a teacher, and so were your aunts and all of their friends. You have been working on something you call the Pipeline Project—it’s about teachers and the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Pipeline Project is about how poverty manifests in black, brown, and Native American communities in such a way that the likelihood is high that a kid will end up in the juvenile justice system and then in prison. The Justice Department has statistics that prove that poor children of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, and for things that sometimes aren’t very clear—like “willful defiance,” which can mean looking at the teacher the wrong way. But I feel it’s a little bit dangerous to blame schools and teachers for something that is rooted in poverty and the way people live without opportunity.
Your most important work has been your one-person performances onstage, where you take a social and political issue, interview more than 100 people with different perspectives, and then portray about two dozen of those characters yourself, re-creating their speech and gestures—it’s amazing. Recently you performed in Baltimore, in a piece about Baltimore.