In one-woman shows like “Fires in the Mirror,” about the Crown Heights riots, and “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” about the violence following the Rodney King affair, Anna Deavere Smith helped create a new kind of theater. Playing dozens of characters, all based on extensive interviews with real people, Smith provoked an unusual level of audience empathy, in part because she literally embodied those peoples’ stories. The violence she chronicled — which is at base a failure of empathy — was reversed in the telling of the story.
In her new work, called “Notes From the Field: Doing Time in Education — The California Chapter,” Smith explores the school-to-prison pipeline, a journey — undertaken primarily by people of color — from poor and broken schools to well-funded and high-functioning jails.
In the middle of what Smith is calling a work-in-progress, now on stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, audience members were surprised that their intermission was replaced by small group discussion. Minyans of strangers gathered together in the courtyard and by the bathrooms to reflect on what they had heard; imagine what a healthier society would feel like; and offer one thing they could do to make that vision a reality.
As Smith explained in the program: “I want to sound an alarm. I see the theater as a convening place, where you, for the most part strangers to one another, can come together to exchange ideas, suggest solutions, and possibly, when I’m gone, mobilize around what should be done.”
Although one person in my row complained that “I feel like I’m back in school,” most of us were moved and challenged by our assignment. All of us had spent this violent year watching the primary result of the pipeline of broken dreams — the deaths of African-Americans, or the deaths of the dreams of African-Americans, or both. And now we were presented with a conduit for conversation.
What we — mostly middle-aged white people planning on expensive post-performance gelato — didn’t say, was that we were still likely to get home in one piece from a theater in a safe part of down.
I write this on the eve of Tisha b’Av, when we read the Book of Lamentations, which we call by the first Hebrew word in the book, “Eicha,” or “How?” How, Jeremiah asks, have we allowed ourselves to sin Jerusalem into destruction? How do we recover from this failure? How do we understand the covenant that we hope still stands between us and God?
Rabbinic commentators suggest that Jerusalem is not just the actual, historical city, but a mythic construction, a metaphor for our collective psyche, even a living being. The language of these Lamentations embodies Jerusalem as a disgraced wife, or a forlorn daughter.
New ideas in urban planning, a field not known for poetic language, also call upon the metaphor of the body. When neighborhoods are cut off from the rest of the city — without access to good schools, food, parks and gardens — they wither and die. And if enough appendages die, the whole body shuts down.
Sometimes it feels like the disconnect between parts of our cities, between the racial elements within our collective Jerusalem, has made us morally anemic. Do we not see the disconnect between those groups for whom the covenant with America has held, and those for whom it has been broken?
Eicha doesn’t only dwell in sadness; it also rises up in righteous rage, at the politicians who cover up our nation’s sins with re-direction and entertainment, blame and bling: “Your prophets have seen false and senseless visions for you, and they have not exposed your iniquity to straighten out your backsliding, but have prophesied for you false and misleading oracles.”
The genius of Torah, of its stories, is that it compels us to break down the walls between us and them, between yesterday and today. The ritual of reading Eicha requires the painful attendance of community, forcing us to listen, to feel, to ask questions.
The genius of political theater is that it breaks down the “fourth wall,” the wall separating not only customer and entertainer, but also art and action, fiction and reality. I ask the question, then, of our moral literatures: What is the purpose of our collective stories if not to encourage the presence of empathies? And if encouragement is insufficient to force their attendance onto the stage of wisdom, then perhaps we deserve the breaking not just of the fourth wall of fiction, but of the first, second and third walls of the city itself.
Daniel Schifrin’s column appears every other month.