Anna Deavere Smith discusses inequality ahead of Center Stage play on cyclical discrimination

Nationally celebrated playwright, actor, and educator Anna Deavere Smith has returned to her birthplace of Baltimore to interview residents and investigate the repetitive cycle that leads low-income children of color from disciplinary action in school to incarceration. The interviews will inform her upcoming one-woman play, "The Pipeline Project,"  premiering at Center Stage in the fall.

Like the documentary-style theater productions for which Smith is known, such as "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" and "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," which explore specific American communities in times of crisis, "The Pipeline Project" will draw from the experiences and stories as told by real members of the community. City Paper Photo Editor J.M. Giordano and Editor-At-Large Baynard Woods are among the many residents Smith has interviewed over the past month.

During a discussion at Center Stage last night with Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., Smith revealed she originally intended to begin her research in Baltimore back in March, but after tearing a tendon, she was forced to postpone her visit to May, in the aftermath of Freddie Gray's death. Dozens of Smith's interviewees were in the audience. 

During the discussion, Smith shared little information on the play itself. She and Ifill focused on racial inequality, specifically its impact on the lives of black youth, and political corruption in the city. They discussed the school-to-prison pipeline effect that condemns children who are suspended, expelled, or even arrested at school to criminal activity and incarceration later in life—a problem that disproportionately affects low-income youth of color and has been a significant factor in the discussions surrounding the death of Gray.

Disruptive white students may be punished with a reprimand from the school principal or less, while the same or less disruptive actions made by black children are often met with significantly stronger repercussions—or, in the words of Smith: "Black kids go to jail; white kids do mischief." Ifill called the epidemic "the strangulation of childhood for children of color," adding that there is a dignity to childhood that children of color are robbed of through excessive disciplinary action.

"It is impossible to talk about the criminal justice system and mass incarceration without talking about education," Ifill said.

The Q&A session that followed was filled with passionate remarks from the audience. One young woman emphasized that queer (lesbian, transgender) black girls are frequently over-policed at schools. A man who claimed to have served as vice president of the school board for Baltimore City and as chair of the city's Planning Commission noted that meetings for the school board were predominantly black, while the Planning Commission meetings were overwhelmingly white.

"There were black suits," he joked in his thick European accent, adding that members of the Planning Commission often defined economic development as real estate development.

A Baltimore City Public School teacher lamented the trauma experienced by poor children of color.

"What can we do to stop our babies from being viewed as subhuman animals?" he asked, after asserting that "token programming," presumably in reference to Smith's upcoming production, would not undo the misdeeds of society. Smith herself remarked earlier: "I like to be modest about what art can do. I don't think we can save lives [with art]."

In response to the audience's heated remarks, Ifill commented on the substantial shifts in the public opinion of mass incarceration. "As heavy as it feels, there is a privilege in the confrontation of the moment [of crisis], because that is when change happens," she said.

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